July 11, 2008
The Cheese Course: Mystery of Catalonia's mató
Afew months ago, I received an e-mail from a reader from Catalonia who was hoping I could point her to a local source for a Catalonian cheese called mató (mah-TOE). I had never heard of mató, but what she described sounded a lot like fresh ricotta. In Catalonia, she told me, mató is often drizzled with honey for dessert.
I forgot about our correspondence until last month, when I was exploring the contents of the refrigerator case at the Spanish Table in Berkeley. Lo and behold: mató. Packed in a 250-gram tub (about 9 ounces) like cottage cheese, the cheese had a "best before" date that had already passed, but I gambled on it anyway.
The package label puzzled me because it didn't list the usual cheese ingredients. This mysterious dairy product, according to the label, contained pasteurized cow's milk but no culture, no enzymes (the usual label word for a coagulant, like rennet) and no salt. Ricotta often relies on vinegar or another acid for coagulation, but the mató didn't contain vinegar either.
Inside the little tub was a soft, milky, slightly granular but spreadable cheese that I could only describe in terms of what it was not. It wasn't tangy like yogurt, or curdy like cottage cheese. It was thick, bland and sweet, like milk with the water removed. It had none of the cultured-milk taste of ricotta. I put a spoonful on a plate and drizzled some warm honey over it. Very nice. I put another large dollop into a bowl and seasoned it with salt and pepper. Now I had something I could imagine spooning onto hot pasta with tomato sauce, as I would fresh ricotta.
La Espanola, a Los Angeles firm that specializes in Spanish products, imports the cheese from Cadí, a large Spanish cooperative dairy. I asked Alex Motamedi of La Espanola to find out how the mató was made but he struck out. "They were tight-lipped about it," reported Motamedi. "It's kind of a trade secret."
Enric Canut, a cheese authority in Spain whom I consulted, confirmed that traditional Catalonian mató is a sweet, unsalted, unfermented fresh cheese. If made on a farm, the milk would be coagulated with an enzyme extracted from a plant in the artichoke family - a technique still used on a few other Spanish and Portuguese cheeses. Modern industrial dairies use calcium salts or organic acids to precipitate the milk protein.
Motamedi suggested thinking of mató as a cross between yogurt and cheese. It is little known beyond Catalonia. "If you go to Asturias or Valencia and ask for mató del Pirineu (Pyrenees mató), most people won't know what you're talking about," he says.
Daniel Olivella, the Catalonian chef of B44 restaurant in San Francisco, uses Bellwether Farms sheep's milk ricotta to stand in for mató at his restaurant. He serves it for dessert with honey and chopped walnuts and chilled cream sherry.
Fruit preserves, especially cherry or strawberry preserves, are another common accompaniment for mató. Alternatively, spread some salted mató on toasts, top with halved cherry tomatoes, and pour a glass of Carneros Blanc de Noirs.