Artisanal Cheese: Casa Del Caciocavallo

It’s Italiano? Not quite…

Browsing the cheeses at Adams the other day, I ran across Casa del Caciocavallo, a name that suggests an Italian import, right? Caciocavallo is a gourd-shaped cheese made of sheep’s or cow’s milk, with a mild flavor somewhere between mozzarella and provolone. In the old days, it was produced in Sicily but now it’s made in other regions of Italy… and, it turns out, in Gardiner, Ulster County, of all places.

Freddy Destefano, an electrician, and his wife, Cristina (a makeup artist), launched Casa Del Caciocavallo in late summer of 2003, not long after they were married. Freddy’s mother, Maria Destefano, is a real-deal, undiluted Italian lady from a small town near Naples who made the cheese for over 35 years at her farm in Gardiner, along with her husband, brothers- and sisters-in-law, as their collective gaggle of 14 kids grew up. (It sounds like a movie, doesn’t it?) Freddy, the youngest of all, who learned how to make the cheese from his mom, “took it and ran with it,” Cristina says.

freddy destefanoFreddy Destefano forms all his cheeses by hand

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Rather than continue doing it the old-fashioned way, though, the Destefanos — who live in the two-family farmhouse with Freddy’s mom and dad — formalized the business by creating a commercial kitchen on the property that’s “vigorously and frequently inspected by the Department of Agriculture and Markets,” Cristina says.

Caciocavallo is made the same way as mozzarella, she explains, except that before you pull and stretch the curds, they’re heated to a certain temperature, which prevents the cheese from spoiling. “By law, we have to put a date on this, but it has an indefinite shelf life — all that happens is it gets sharper and harder and eventually becomes a grating cheese,” she says. “Some people might get turned off by mold, that’s just part of the process. It’s really good at six to 12 months — sharp and smooth. But we can’t keep up with the market to age pieces that long.”

They use Jersey cow milk from Domino Farms in Accord that’s free of hormones and antibiotics. “The cheese wouldn’t rise if there was anything done to the milk,” Cristina says. “We got milk once from a different farmer and he forgot to tell us that one cow was on antibiotics. The cheese wasn’t happening — it was spoiling right away. One cow on antibiotics was enough to spoil 50 pieces of cheese.”

Once formed, the cheese is cured for 60 days, tied around the neck and hung, which gives it its distinctive shape. The Destefanos make a traditional flavor (the favorite of the Italian community), and three seasoned ones: hot pepper, black pepper, and garlic. In case you’re wondering, Americans like the one with garlic best.

Freddy still works as an electrician by day. “He’s up until midnight every night making cheese. He does it out of passion, not out of need,” says Cristina, who handles the business side.

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You can find Casa del Caciocavallo in branches of Adams Fairacre Farms, Cafe Bocca in Poughkeepsie, and at Nature’s Pantry in Fishkill as well as at farmers’ markets in summer. It’s also available from their online store.

A word of warning: If you go to their Web site with your computer’s sound turned on, you’ll hear Dean Martin crooning “Mambo Italiano,” which, if you’re anything like me, will be stuck in your head for days. “Hey mambo, mambo Italiano, go go go, you mixed-up Siciliano… ”

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