The Big Cheese

One of the best things about this blog is the seemingly endless stream of fascinating people I meet on my adventures. This week’s post, the third installment of my so-called Foodie Fables, may just take the cake (sorry, I’ve got food on the brain).

This story actually begins a few weeks ago, during a team-building outing with some of my talented co-workers. We took a group cooking class at Taranta in Boston’s historic North End. It’s here where you’ll find the best Italian food this city has to offer. We broke up into groups and prepared our meal, course by course. There was a tomato and mozzarella salad, meat (chicken and pork) pasta, and desert. I was in the meat group, but as many of you know I already have some experience with meat.

I appear to be arguing with the lamb direction I was being getting. Go figure.

I appear to be arguing with the pork direction I was being given. Go figure.

My colleagues at the pasta station

My colleagues at the pasta station

The lucky mozzarella group

The lucky mozzarella group

What I was fascinated with, and a little jealous of, was the mozzarella group. They were making mozzarella. I never really thought about the fact that you have to make cheese, but at that moment (actually the moment it was topped with truffle salt) I knew I had to try it.

So after our amazing night at Taranta, I asked if I could come back to learn how to make mozzarella. What I got was a private cooking session with Taranta’s chef and owner, Jose Duarte. While making our cheese was really cool, not to mention tasty, our conversation was totally fascinating.

Jose is from Peru, but is a master of Italian cuisine. He opened Taranta 14 years ago, and has been innovating ever since, in and out of the kitchen. Jose is a thought leader in the culinary world when it comes to sustainability and accountability. Taranta has been composting for six years. Jose developed an edible QR code that diners can scan to find out exactly where their fish was caught and when. He leads his employees on trips to Tuscany so they can better understand–and explain to their customers–where their wine comes from and the story behind it. Jose is a strong believer in “going to the source.” He has even traveled to Florida to investigate the sometimes unfair labor practices surround the tomato industry. He needs to feel good about what he is serving, and will go to great lengths to get that validation.

After learning all this, I was not surprised at all to learn that most restaurants buy their mozzarella in its table-ready form, but Taranta makes theirs. Obviously I came to the right place to learn about making cheese. Jose told me that “every cheese has a story behind it,” and then proceeded to tell me mozzarella’s tale. Mozzarella was first created in southern Italy where the landscape was perfect for buffalo. Buffalos don’t produce great milk for drinking, but it’s very “cheesable” as Jose described it. Mozzarella is technically a pasta filata cheese, which comes from the Latin work for “stretch” (after six years of middle and high school Latin, I can’t tell you how overjoyed I am to actually use this knowledge). And that describes exactly how it’s made:

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First we took mozzarella curd (which comes in large bricks), and broke it up in to small pieces.

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Then we poured hot water into the bowl. Jose, obviously an expert, didn’t need to test the water’s temperature, but if you are trying this at home it should be between 160-165 degrees.

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Next I got to see how mozzarella earned its name. We used the handle of a wooden soon to stretch the cheese. It became silky looking, almost like taffy.

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Next we gently formed a large ball with the cheese, and pinched off balls of various sizes into a bowl of cool water, where it sits until it is ready to serve.

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And thankfully we served it right away…with a little pepper and olive oil. It was so delicious, and still warm inside. A-MAZ-ZING.

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Jose sent me home not only with the mozzarella I had helped him make, but also with some cheese curd so that I could try it from scratch myself. That is my weekend activity. It’s such an interesting process, that I was not surprised when Jose told me that legend has it that mozzarella was first made by accident when some cheese curd fell into a pot of boiling water. This may be the most serendipitous spill in the history of food.

As I gorged myself on mozzarella, I asked Jose what was his favorite part of being a chef. He told me that it was a combination of the process of experimenting as well as the wonder behind it. That wonder and the desire to keep learning is obvious in how Jose has expanded his business (cooking classes) and how he conducts business (investing in the education of his staff). And I think that’s why he so readily agreed to teach little ‘ol me. He said that I “asked a big question.” Many people wonder, but few people ask, and when people ask he wants to give them the answer.

I am so glad Jose wanted to give me this answer. And I will take this as a sign that I should keep on asking questions…of others and myself.

I really can’t thank Jose Duarte enough for being so generous with his time and his cheese curd. If you are in Boston, and want some amazing food that you can also feel good about, head over to Taranta. And consider taking one of their group cooking classes, my colleagues and I had a great time. I was not compensated in any way for this post.

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2 thoughts on “The Big Cheese

  1. Wish I were around this weekend to learn from you how to do this!! Jose sounds like a really cool chef – excited to try out his restaurant the next time I’m in the North End!

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