Classica. Affumicata. Burrata. This is the holy trinity of cheese at Obika, Toronto's new mozzarella bar. Translated for your taste buds think "delicate, smoked and creamy."
The Italian names displayed above Obika's sushi-style bar make me forget that I'm standing in the atrium of Brookfield Place in the city's financial district. With mouth-watering anticipation, I'm transported back to a little Italian town called Riomaggiore, where I ate my first mozzarella di bufala campana - the whey dripping through my fingers as I held the soft, porcelain-white ball in my hand, taking bites as if from an apple.
I'm hoping that the mozzarella balls served at Obika - showcased in large, see-through containers - will be just as fresh. And Lorenzo Sibio, president and CEO of the Toronto location (the only Canadian operation in a global chain of 17), assures me that they are. They were all made in Italy the previous morning. I'll be tasting hand-pulled cheese that is barely over a day old.
The skill and labour it takes to hand-pull fresh mozzarella is what gives mozzarella di bufala campana (the "classica") its soft, delicate texture. To be authentic and receive the Italian DOC certification - Denominazione di Origine Controllata - it must come from the region of Campagna and be made with buffalo milk. Those who make it are said to have "hands of gold" - which are often insured. The cheese is produced by kneading hot curd until it is smooth and shiny, and then "pulling" (twisting and turning sections) until a precise level of consistency and pliability is achieved. Machine-made mozzarella cannot replicate the same tender texture. Only a mozzarella maker's hands have the necessary sensitivity to navigate the subtle changes of the curd.
Mr. Sibio provides some tips on mozzarella protocol. Once a ball is removed from its "mother liquid" (whey or brine) it is never put back in - nor would it ever be put in a different batch. The two are inextricably linked. "It must always be served at room temperature," Mr. Sibio tells me, eyeing the sample plate we will be trying. "In fact I can see this one is a bit cool." He then gently touches it. It's sent to be replaced with one at proper serving temperature. At which point we can finally dig in.
The first bite is from the classic mozzarella di bufala. Delicate yielding textures, a fullness of flavour that is sweet, tangy and lingering. You can never call mozzarella bland once you've had one of these. Mr. Sibio asks me if I can detect the "crunchy taste" and I imagine the pastures the animal grazed in.
Next I move on to the burrata. Sourced from Andria in the Puglia region of Italy, burrata is now mostly made with cow's milk. It's made in a style similar to the fresh bufala but filled with bits of torn mozzarella (stracciatella) and cream. It has even a shorter shelf life than mozzarella, ideally eaten within a day of making. Delicate, rich and completely decadent, it's a perfect dessert that is often wrapped in asphodel (leek-like) leaves.
Finally, I arrive at my first ever tasting of affumicata. This is a smoked version of the classica that has developed a caramel brown exterior from the heat of smoldering hay. Mr. Sibio describes the cheese, his favourite, as having a "savage taste." It immediately takes you outdoors - the fall's brisk air and the heat from a fire on your hands.
I only have time for one more question. What happens to all the mozzarella that is not considered fresh enough to serve customers? "We eat it," smiles Mr. Sibio. "The staff take it home." Hmmm, time to brush up my resumé.
Sue Riedl blogs about cheese and other edibles at cheeseandtoast.com
When pressed gently with a fork, the layers of the mozzarella should not come apart and the exterior "shell" should not crack.
The cheese should have a pleasant elasticity and a milky, sweet-smelling whey should exude from the middle of the cheese when cut.
Do not buy a product that is yellowish, dried out or smells sour.
To enjoy it at its best, eat within a day or two. You can make a new brine to keep "leftovers" by adding 3/4 teaspoon of salt per cup of water.
The freshest mozzarella needs no accompaniment other than a good piece of fragrant, chewy, bread. Try serving it simply with your best olive oil, fragrant homemade pesto or roasted peppers. Salty prosciutto on the side or a quick salad of arugula, olive oil and a squeeze of fresh lemon makes the fastest food you'll ever find.
But it also makes a great addition to a menu. A few ideas from Obika:
-- Serve the mozzarella with smoked salmon as a twist on the usual cream cheese pairing.
-- Instead of prosciutto, try serving fresh mozzarella with bresaola (Italian air-cured beef) and arugula.
-- Use it on pizza but add it at the end. Make a thin crust with a simple, flavourful tomato sauce and bake. Add pieces of mozzarella and fresh basil just for the last 30 seconds of cooking. The cheese will soften from the heat of the sauce but still taste fresh.
-- As above, add small pieces to pasta with fresh tomato sauce just before serving.