The area of the Belice Valley was colonised to the south by the Greeks, to the north by the Elymians, and to the west by the Phoenicians and Carthaginians. It is from these illustrious roots that it derives its immense, priceless archaeological heritage.
In reality, the presence of the Phoenicians in Sicily preceded that of the Greeks, particularly in the area of Agrigento, Trapani and Palermo, where they occupied the coasts, headlands and nearby islands. Thucydides relates that in the late 8th and early 7th century BC, the Phoenicians withdrew to Mozia, Soluntum and Palermo, close to the Elymians, their allies of Trojan origin, and to Carthage.
So it was that in the Belice Valley, as in other parts of Sicily, the life of the Mediterranean peoples was dominated for several centuries by the encounter/clash between Greek and Phoenician-Punic culture.Sheep farming, however, was already practised in Sicily and in the Vastedda Valle del Belice DOP production area long before the arrival of the Phoenicians.
Sheep farming in this area has always been the main livestock activity, in keeping with the grain and fodder land use adopted over the millennia, ever since Sicily was the “granary of Rome.”
Vastedda della Valle del Belìce DOP is a cheese that was once only made in the summer months, from the small amount of milk that the sheep gave at the end of their lactation period.
When the milk for cheesemaking reached quantities too small to obtain a form of pecorino, and the weather was too warm to collect milk from successive milkings without it going sour, Vastedda della valle del Belìce was made.
Making a cheese to be eaten very fresh provided a way to remedy the summer production problems. Thus this sort of sheep mozzarella was born.
Spinning sheep’s milk is a difficult art, requiring particular dexterity, sensitivity and meticulous care. The shepherds claim that sheep’s milk can only be spun if it comes from Belice sheep.
Vastedda della Valle del Belìce DOP is now produced throughout the year and is also one of the area’s major dairy products in terms of quantity.
If not unique, Vastedda della Valle del Belìce DOP is certainly one of very few spun-curd sheep cheeses in the world.
The reason for this rarity, as mentioned before, lies in the fact that sheep’s milk does not lend itself to spinning.
Vastedda della Valle del Belìce DOP is a fresh spun-curd sheep’s cheese.
The shape is similar to focaccia bread, with slightly convex sides; the diameter must be between 15 and 17 cm, and the height of the lateral side between 3 and 4 cm; the weight is between 500 and 700 g; the surface is without any rind, ivory or straw yellow in colour, smooth, firm and without creases; the paste is white, smooth, non-grainy and may have very faint streaks; it must be without holes, or have very few, and not exude any liquid.
The aroma is characteristic of fresh sheep’s milk; the taste is sweet, fresh and pleasant, with slightly sour traces; it has a fat content of not less than 35% of the dry matter, and a sodium chloride content of not more than 5%.
The milk must come from one or two milkings, that of the evening and the following morning; the processing must be done within 48 hours after the first milking. The milk, after filtering with special sieves or canvas filters, is traditionally heated in tinned copper boilers to a maximum temperature of 40°C on a wood or gas fire; then, at a temperature of 36-40°C, local lamb rennet paste is added.
When the curd has formed, it must be broken using a wooden spoon, known as a “rotula”, with a protuberance at the end, necessary for breaking up the curds evenly to obtain lumps the size of rice grains; spontaneous syneresis is facilitated by adding warm water while the curds are being broken up. The curd lumps deposited on the bottom of the container are left to stand for five minutes, so that they begin to amalgamate, and the curd mixture is then taken from the vat and placed in wicker baskets, without the paste being pressed.
The curd is then left in the wicker baskets at room temperature to mature. After 24 hours (or even 48 hours during the cold season), having checked the level of acidification of the paste, the curd is cut into slices, placed in a wooden container, known as a “piddiaturi” and covered with hot whey or water at a temperature of 80-90°C.
The paste is left to soak for 3-7 minutes before it is spun. It is then removed from the whey or hot water to begin the spinning process, in which cords are formed, which are folded in two and braided together.
When the paste has acquired a shiny white surface, sphere-shaped portions are detached from the mixture, worked by hand and sealed at the point of detachment. The sealing is done by rapidly squeezing the lips of the sphere, which initially have a layered appearance, with the thumb and index finger.They are then placed, with the closure at the bottom, in ceramic bowls, where, after turning, they will acquire the characteristic shape of Vastedda.
The paste is well drained and therefore solidifies very quickly. Subsequently, when the forms have cooled and acquired consistency (6-12 hours after the spinning) they are salted, by placing them in a saturated kitchen salt solution at room temperature for between 30 minutes and 2 hours. They are then dried in cool, moderately ventilated rooms, and after 12-48 hours are ready for consumption.
The Local Area
The Vastedda della Valle del Belìce DOP cheese production area is characterised by chalky brown soils, lithosols, regosols and vertisols, and by natural and cultivated pastures, rich in wild herbs and local ecotypes, whose botanical compositions consist of legumes, grasses and crucifers.
Due to its latitude and particular topography, the climatic factors in the Vastedda della Valle del Belìce DOP production area are different than in other parts of Sicily. The average annual temperature is about 16°C, with a minimum of 9°C and a maximum of 35°C. The average annual rainfall is 770 mm and the prevailing winds come from the south-east (Sirocco) and the north (Tramontane). The Sirocco has a negative impact on crop development and is also very troublesome for livestock, which suffer from the high temperatures. The Tramontana is welcomed because it reduces the heat.
The Vastedda della Valle del Belìce DOP production area ranges in altitude from 100 to 800 metres above sea level, although altitudes of between 300 and 600 metres are more common.The geographical area for the sheep farming, milk production, processing and packaging of Vastedda della Valle del Belìce DOP is located within the administrative territory of various municipalities in the provinces of Agrigento, Trapani and Palermo.
Curator — Consorzio di Tutela della Vastedda della Valle del Belice DOP