By day four of our Puglia tour the temperature had dropped to a more manageable 32 degrees so we decide to tackle a big town, and headed off to the stunning baroque city of Lecce. Not for nothing is it known as the Florence of the South – every corner you turn you are dazzled by the ornate beauty of the architecture and honeyed limestone that characterises Lecce.
A great way to see Lecce is aboard a tourist ‘train’, or trenino, which is really a bus but which looks like something straight out of ToyTown. (photo shows a similar trenino at the beach the previous day.) As we did the tourist circuit I half expected Noddy and his chums to clamber aboard. Naff, but great fun. Especially as after disembarking we headed straight for the well-reviewed restaurant I Latini, and settled in for lunch.
The most memorable part of this meal was my starter – mozzarella cheese with parma ham. Now, I’ve had plenty of mozzarella in my time, but nothing like this. The first mouthful stopped me in my tracks; I put down my knife and fork, stared at Mr Cross, then stared at the mozzarella, stunned by the deep, fresh burst of rich flavour that had so taken me unawares. It was quite an experience. Mozzarella is lovely and creamy but does not usually have such a kaleidoscope of flavour.
I realised why almost immediately. It wasn’t just that it was fresh, or that it was made from buffalo milk, and Puglia is the home of buffalo mozzarella. There was more. I asked the waiter if the mozzarella was made from unpasteurised milk, and he confirmed that it was.
Unpasteurised cheese in not rare in the UK, but it is uncommon. Unpasteurised milk on the other hand is so rare it has a cultish status among its devotees. Proponents of it are the thorn in the side of the Food Standards Agency which can barely hide its disdain for those who insist on buying raw milk that has been neither pasteurised nor homogenised. The FSA warns sniffily of TB, Salmonella and E.coli, even though there has been no recorded case of food poisoning from drinking raw milk since 2002. The law states that any raw milk must be labelled with the warning “This milk has not been heat treated and may therefore contain organisms harmful to health”, thereby putting it on a par with cigarettes in terms of malevolence. That’s in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, where raw milk can only be sold direct to the consumer from the producer, for example at farmers’ markets. In Scotland it is barred outright.
People love raw milk because of the flavour. There are also plenty of claims for health benefits, though these are not always easy to substantiate. But we do know this: many nutrients are destroyed by the pasteurisation process, along with the live enzymes contained in raw milk. Raw milk is naturally high in probiotic, ‘friendly’ bacteria – the type that keep dangerous bacteria in check. It is often reported that people who are dairy intolerant find they can tolerate raw milk and cheeses, pasteurisation alters the protein in milk, making it harder to digest and metabolise.
The irony is that it is the process of intensive farming which has resulted in the spread of disease in cattle – TB, Salmonella and E. coli – making pasteurisation essential for the milk of these poor, immune-compromised beasts. Intensively reared cattle do not have the same resistance to disease enjoyed by their outdoor reared, grass-fed sisters. Raw milk is produced to exacting standards to ensure that contamination does not occur, and is sourced from herds which have been tested free of TB. My recommendation, if it’s unpasteurised you’re after, is to source milk and cheese from grass-fed, preferably organically reared cows.