The Brave Little Shoemaker or The Ricotta Resentment

In which a shoemaker reluctantly becomes a hero, a princess reluctantly gets married and we discover the relevance of a giant, a unicorn, a wild boar and some ricotta.

So what did you think of our brave shoemaker? I imagine you had heard this tale before, but maybe not this variant. You have probably heard the German variant presented by the Brothers Grimm as The Brave Little Tailor or the English version which is very similar and known as the Valiant Little Tailor. You may even be interested to know that are at least 14 Italian versions of this tales. The variant is an interesting one to me because of the way the giant is killed using the trick of getting him to gut himself. It is the same way that Jack the Giant Killer kills one of his giants.

Pudding or Cheese?

In most versions of this tale there are two giants who the tailor winds up the point where they end up killing each other but I was interested in how this Sicilian variant, as collected by Laura Gonzenbach contained the same part of the tale of the very British Jack the Giant Killer. I don’t suppose we’ll ever know and as I discussed when I told the tale of Jack the Giant Killer it wasn’t a folk tale which goes back into English/Welsh history but a tale that possibly only first appeared in a recognisable format in the early 18th Century in a chapbook.

There were other theories and you can discover them by visiting the earlier episode. Maybe the answer is sailors, they do get around and I love the fact that the Sicilian tale has a bag full of macaroni and the English version has a big bag of pudding. The Giant killing method might be the same but the food is definitely representative of where the story is told.

Ricotta or Jam?

Thats why I was fascinated by how big a part the ricotta played in this tale as in the Northern European variants the flies are attracted to jam but here ricotta has the starring role of fly attractor and then goes on to feature again as a way to trick the giant. However, I have been a little distracted from my tale and before I go on to talk about the folklore and history of ricotta which I hope you will find as fascinating as I did, I must address how this is yet another Jack tale and how the behaviour of the princess is understandable if you look at it from her perspective.

Princess Status

Firstly lets look at the princess, yet another woman in a folktale who has no name and very little agency but as she is in a Sicilian tale she does fight back as much as she can. I’m not sure whether Laura’s gender as a translator has any influence on this story but she does at least present the princess as fighting back even though she knows it is probably futile. I’ve addressed the highly patriarchal nature of Sicilian society previously but it is against this background you must set our princess and her behaviour. Although she knows she must do what her father says she does argue about marrying a stranger and her father does actually try to avoid fulfilling his promise once he realises what an impact it will have on his daughter. Essentially though she is still collateral damage to her father’s whims.

The one thing she does have is status as a princess which is why she is so angry when she finds he is a shoemaker and not just a hero. The one thing she could ask of her father is that she marry someone of similar status because that is genuinely all she has. Her father does at least recognise this and tries to remedy his actions as long as he doesn’t have to sacrifice anything himself.

Is Giuseppe Really Jack in Disguise?

Secondly let have a look at Giuseppe, the shoemaker and unlikely hero. He is however less unlikely if you cast him the Jack role in this folk tale (although his name translates to Joseph), he is determined to go out and make his fortune from nothing, quick witted, not worried about being slightly deceitful to get what he wants and he’s not afraid to be a braggart.

The shoemaker knows full well what his sash will suggest to people especially in the large numbers outlined in this tale. He also inspires loyalty from those that serve him as his page saving him from the king’s men. Maybe, I’m being unfair and roping Giuseppe into a tale type not his own and I should let him stand alone as his own type of hero. He was at least merry, brave and clever and there are worse traits in a hero and in a husband.

Snow White Ricotta

Now lets get to that ricotta in history and folklore. Italian folk tales are absolutely full of the most amazing food imagery and there is a wonderful article by Terri Windling if you would like to read more : but we need to consider ricotta as an actual food. Can you picture it in its natural setting, all fresh and gleaming white against a hot dusty landscape and a deep blue sky with a dark sea as far as you can bear to look? I can and it isn’t the same as the very slightly grey creature we get when we tip it out from the tub from the supermarket.

It is meant to be eaten very fresh and we don’t get that here, we get a facsimile but we accept it as it is the closest we can get to make dishes we love that contain it. Ricotta also isn’t strictly speaking a cheese because it is made from heating the whey that has come from an earlier cheesemaking t a high heat with a little fresh milk and then scooping of the curds. It is heated twice hence the name ricotta which means twice cooked. It is meant to be eaten with the day.

Origins Lost in History

Like most of its cousins in the Italian cheese family, ricotta is so old that its origins are nearly impossible to place. Some even believe that the practice of reusing leftover whey started with cheesemaking itself. However, more importantly, most agree that ricotta came to mainland Italy from Sicily, the spare whey practice migrating when Arabs conquered and ruled Sicily. You can make it with cow’s, goat’s or sheep’s milk but the best Sicilian version is made from sheep’s milk.

There is a reasonable amount of evidence that ricotta is an old cheese, starting first with the Greek writer Athenaeus (170-230 CE) who wrote of a soft Sicilian cheese that he ate at a banquet. We don’t know this was definitely ricotta but it certainly sounds like it. If it was then this may have been the first written record of the cheese. The Tacuinum Sanitatis, the Latin translation of the Arab physician Ibn Butlan of Baghdad’s 11th century health handbook however, holds the very first illustration of ricotta being made. It shows a family standing over a boiling cauldron in a cottage courtyard.

Gods, Nymphs & Famous Painters

So, that’s some history, but what about folklore? There was certainly more than I was expecting and it isn’t all Italian. The earliest is actually Ancient Greek and they thought that ricotta cheese was discovered by Artiseo, son of the god Apollo and the nymph Cirene. Some also say it is the cheese that Odysseus and his men stole from Polyphemus, the Cyclops, in Homer’s Odyssey but this isn’t explicit.

The Italians believe we have ricotta to thank for the painting genius of Giotto. Apparently Giotto was a shepherd as a young boy and inspired by the loveliness of his ricotta breakfast carved a picture of a sheep and a bowl of ricotta onto a rock. A passing painting master known as Cimabue was eating some of Giotto’s ricotta as he journeyed and noticed the carving and was so impressed that he agreed to teach the young Giotto and the rest is history.

Now What Does Creamy Curds Suggest To You?

Now to some slightlier risqué folklore, due to various reasons associated with how it was believed men’s bodies worked and the fact that this cheese in particular was made by heating liquid to a high temperature and creamy curds rising to the top, sperm related sexual innuendo abounded throughout the Renaissance and cheese making and cheese were a metaphor for sexual activity. If you would like to read more about the cultural theories then you should investigate the works of Sandra Ott (1993) and Patricia Simons (2011).

There is also the suggestion connected loosely to this this that shepherds who made the best mountain cheeses were also the best at causing or preventing their wife’s pregnancies which was still believed up until the 1970s. If you’d like to see something a little more visual about ricotta specifically then I can suggest The Ricotta Eaters by Vincenzo Campi from around 1585 which is mentioned in Patricia Simons’ work. You are entirely free to make your own interpretation. That is what art is all about after all.

Interesting Shaped Cheese

In additional evidence of the connection of ricotta to sex and fertility, in Calabria, cheesemakers produce Ricotta Affumicata di Mammola, a regional product eaten at feasts to celebrate fertility. Before smoking, the cheese is fashioned into a certain male body part, and is then sliced and shaved onto various dishes. I must be honest I could only find one source that this is true but I couldn’t resist it. They definitely make this cheese in this community and there is photographic evidence of its shape, it is also mentioned that the cheese was connected to fertility. There is a definitely an annual feast of the smoked ricotta and a feast of the flavours held here too but whether the story about the fertility feasts is true or not requires better Italian than I possess.

An Actual Recipe

I think we’ve reached a natural end with that so it only remains for me to share my recipe for Spinach and Ricotta Lasagne except I’m worried about letting it out into the world because it is not very polished. I have been making it for years although sometimes I use cannelloni and that is delicious too, but the real problem is that I make if for the dish and the amount of people I am serving so the amounts are not the same every time. This recipe is for a 1.7 L 22 x 25 cm sort of square pyrex dish.

Spinach & Ricotta Lasagne



Prep time


Cooking time



Rich layered pasta dish with a spinach & ricotta filling


  • Spinach Filling
  • 375g frozen leaf spinach defrosted

  • 250g ricotta (if you can’t get it I mix 1/2 a tub of full fat cream cheese with half a tub of cottage cheese)

  • 2 -4 cloves garlic chopped finely

  • Olive oil

  • Pinch nutmeg

  • Plenty of seasoning

  • Tomato Sauce
  • Olive oil (enough for a fine layer over the bottom of a small saucepan)

  • Garlic cloves (I use a minimum of 4 but I love garlic so 2 is probably more normal) chopped finely

  • 1 tin chopped tomatoes

  • 3-4 tablespoons tomato puree

  • 1 tablespoon oregano

  • Big pinch chilli flakes or to taste

  • 1 stock cube veg or chicken is fine

  • 1 big splash of Worcestershire sauce (leave out if veggie)

  • Lasagne
  • Sheets of lasagne, fresh or dry (the sort that doesn’t need pre-cooking is fine) preferably the size that 2 next to each other will make a layer in your dish.

  • Grated cheese for topping, I use a mixture of mozzarella, cheddar and parmesan for gooeyness and flavour


  • Make the Tomato sauce
  • Fry the garlic in the oil until it is just cooked, but not really coloured
  • Add tin of tomatoes and all the other sauce ingredients, bring to a boil and then turn down to low and simmer with the lid half on/half off for 20 mins until darker red and thick, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking.
  • Make Spinach filling
  • Whilst sauce is cooking, fry the garlic in a deep pan in the oil until it is just cooked but not coloured, add defrosted spinach and cook until water is gone, around 5 minutes then remove from the heat and when spinach is still warm but not boiling hot add all the cheese and seasoning and stir until mixed thoroughly.
  • Make Lasagne
  • When both sauces are ready, preheat oven to 200 degrees C and start by layering a thin layer of tomato sauce, then spinach sauce then pasta, then just layer spinach mixture and pasta until you have used all the spinach sauce (more thin layers is better) and have one layer of pasta left. Then add the last layer of pasta on top, use the remaining tomato sauce to cover the pasta and top with the grated cheese.
  • Cook in the hot oven until the cheese and tomato sauce is bubbling around 25-35 minutes.
  • Prepare Ahead
  • You can prepare this up to the cooking stage a day before and keep in the fridge but it will need a longer cooking time (45-60 minutes) unless you bring it back up to room temp before you cook. If you do you may need to cover the top loosely with foil if the cheese starts to brown too much and check the middle temp of the lasagne either with a skewer which should be too hot to touch if it is ready, or a a minimum of 80 degrees on a temperature probe.
Further Reading

The Oxford Companion to Cheese
The Oxford Companion to Food
The Sex of Men in Pre-Modern Europe – Patricia Simons
The Circle of Mountains: A Basque Shepherding Community – Sandra Ott
Cheese and Culture: A History of Cheese and Its Place in Western Civilization – Paul Kindstedt
The Philosophy of Cheese – Patrick McGuigan
The Odyssey – Homer