Poverty breeds creativity. At least, in a culinary sense. When money and food are in short supply, resourceful farmers invent any number of ways to stretch their products as far as they can possibly go. And nowhere is this more apparent than in Puglia—where three of the region’s highly regarded cheeses are, in fact, crafted from the leavings of another.
Among Puglia’s most distinctive culinary products is the burrata, a soft and equally milky cousin of mozzarella. And there’s a reason they taste so similar—the burrata was first invented as a way to re-use leftover shreds of cheese. A ball of burrata is nothing more than a mozzarella casing stuffed with a filling of salted cream and strings of leftover mozzarella called stracciatella. The result is a fist-size cheese with a creamy, molten center—which has stretched a few scraps of mozzarella to a prized cheese in its own right.
Ricotta cheese, of course, is the most well-known example of turning dairy waste into an edible product; translating to “re-cooked,” ricotta is made by reheating leftover whey and extracting a second, fine curd. But like most other soft cheeses, ricotta is only fresh for a few days. So enterprising cheesemakers in Bari, when faced with a surplus, learned to let it age. After a few days, the soft ricotta begins to sour and leach water; after a few months, it thickens into a wholly different form, dubbed ricotta scanta, or ricotta forte.
But the latter name is the more precise. This creamy, spreadable cheese rivals the smell and painfully pungent flavor of any Limburger or Munster. Sharp enough to set one's mouth burning, it could generously be called an acquired taste. But generations in Bari have relied on their ricotta scanta to spread over bread, liven up vegetables or dab over pasta. Today, it's a treasured local product; and, as so much in Puglia, one deeply rooted in the region's poor but resourceful past.