Photo courtesy of AgrigentoTour http://agrigentour.it/2544/capra-girgentana-presidio-slow-food/
This breed is named after the town of Girgenti (modern-day Agrigento). Its long, spiraling horns, reaching over 2 feet on the males, make it unmistakable. Its horns resemble those of the Markhor, wild Asian goats, which are likely ancestors.
As a kid (and general pest) at the San Diego Zoo (San Diego, California, USA) where most of my family worked, I would hop off the tour bus and sit in front of the Markhor exhibit and just watch them. I just thought they were awesome, but I wasn’t sure why they were just as intriguing as some of the larger and in many ways, more impressive fauna. I didn’t know until 2013 that I was born in the Year of the Goat. A farm intern from the Netherlands we were hosting at that time had to tell me. Sheeeeesh!
Anyway, I do see the resemblance. And of course, I want one (or two). Girgentanas, not Markhors (although they might be fun too).
The Markhor, national animal of Pakistan
The breed was probably brought to Sicily by the Arabs, who invaded in 827AD. As the invaders spread across the island, traveling with their animals, the goats became established in the southwest of Sicily.
Their milk is renowned for its excellent balance between fat and protein. This is a disappearing breed, but one family farm is preserving them and producing a traditional and truly unique product from their milk. This sustainable tourism venue (and really great photo op) can be investigated further at Fattoria Valle Magica farm in the Abruzzese Mountains in central eastern Italy, just 2 hours from Rome. You can contact them for reservations through their website at https://www.vallemagica.com/
It’s not unrealistic to feel that such a visit might be a once in a lifetime experience. Over the last 50 years, Italy has lost half of its traditional cheeses, five cattle breeds, three goat breeds, and over ten sheep breeds, while another 32 are at risk of extinction. So why not take in the view, take a load off your feet, and taste a rare cheese, while preserving these amazing goats at the same time. The makers of a very unusual hay ripened cheese from the milk of these goats will make you feel like a local.
Caciottona di Capra al Fieno
“Covered in natural hay, this is a semi-hard, compact, crumbly goat’s cheese. The taste is milky, buttery, round, and smooth with hints of grass and flowers. The aftertaste is round, mild with earthy notes and continued grassy flavours resulting from the hay.” From the British publication Gentleman’s Journal.
Oh yeah, this one is for the ‘after dinner cheese sampler’ plate. Or if you are really adventurous, you can shred some over a traditional Italian dish like Pasta Alla Norma. I have adapted this recipe from Serious Eats and it rocks.
- 4-6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for serving
- 3/4 pounds Sicilian eggplants (2 to 3 eggplants), cut into 3/8th-inch round slices
- Kosher salt
- 3 medium cloves garlic, minced (about 1 tablespoon)
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano
- 1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
- 2 tablespoons tomato paste
- 1 (28-ounce) can whole peeled tomatoes, crushed by hand into 1/2-inch chunks
- 1 pound dry ridged, tubular pasta such as rigatoni or penne rigate
- Handful fresh small basil leaves, or roughly torn large leaves
- 2-3 ounces grated Caciottona di Capra al Fieno
- Thinly slice two-three Sicilian (Grafitti) eggplants. Cover one side of slices well in kosher salt. Press the slices vigorously between paper towels and walk away for 3 hours. Do not salt both sides and do not rinse the slices when you get ready to sear them. When you return to them to begin searing they will be a funky grey color. This is a good thing and it will go away. Do not remove the skin and do not walk away and let them burn while searing (grim personal experience).
- Begin by heating 4 tablespoons olive oil in a 12-inch non-stick or cast iron skillet over medium heat until shimmering. Add as much eggplant as fits in a single layer. Cook and flip, shaking pan occasionally until eggplant is well browned on both sides, about 10 minutes total. Flip them about every 60 seconds, and become one with the saute process. Don’t get distracted or try to multi-task, instead pour yourself a favorite Chianti and turn these beauties every minute or so while you chill over the skillet. Add olive oil as needed, and be sure to get them this lovely, caramelized dark brown. Keep the olive oil nice and shimmery but not smokin’ hot.
- Transfer eggplant slices to a plate and set aside. Repeat with any remaining eggplant, adding olive oil as necessary, until all eggplant is browned.
- Add any remaining olive oil and increase heat to medium-high. Add oregano, pepper flakes, and tomato paste and cook while stirring constantly. When it starts to fry, add garlic and crushed tomatoes and their juice. Bring to a boil, reduce to a bare simmer and cook, stirring occasionally, until liquid is thickened into a sauce-like consistency, about 10 minutes.
- Meanwhile, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and cook the penne. Drain pasta, reserving 1 cup of cooking liquid. Return pasta to pot.
- Add sauce to pasta and toss to coat, adding reserved pasta water as necessary to thin sauce to desired consistency. Add eggplant slices and toss to combine. The eggplant should exceed the pasta by a 2:1 ratio. That is part of the uniqueness of this version of Pasta alla Norma.
- Drizzle with a bit more extra virgin olive oil, then garnish with grated Caciottona di Capra al Fieno and torn basil leaves.
For a tried and true pairing of this particular goat cheese with a wine, I would recommend a Pouilly-Fuisse Chardonnay or a more budget friendly choice of a reputable Sauvignon Blanc. Either way, I found that it is important to let the grassiness of this unique cheese shine and not ask it to fight against an overly fruity or oaky wine. In my opinion a sweet wine would also not give this cheese it’s due on a cheese platter.
If used in the recipe above, I believe that a regional Montepulciano based wine would be quite nice, although I haven’t tried it (but I will in the next few weeks).
“Mangiare Abbondante!” Eat hearty my friends.