From the most famous Parmigiano to the most secluded pecorino, get ready to tour through the mondo magnifico of Italian cheese. We’ll talk about the history, production, and trivia for each cheese, and then tell you what to pair with it at your next festa. So grab a class of vino and mangiare!
If it were a crime to be an Italian cheese, then pecorino would be La Famiglia, its members hardened, bold, and made from a different stock than the rest of us. Thankfully, we don’t have to fear pecorino in the real world – far from it (no one’s sleeping with the fishes tonight!). But it is important to note that pecorino is not one specific type of cheese: Rather, it’s an entire family with production and styles changing based on where you are in Italy. Between them all, they have only two main commonalities: They’re hard (prime grating cheeses), and they’re all made from sheep’s milk. In fact, the name pecorino is derived from the Italian word pecora, or sheep. Therefore, you won’t be finding any cow’s milk pecorinos anywhere!
When people talk about pecorino, they’re usually referring to one of four main types: Pecorino Sardo, Toscano, Siciliano, or – the most famous – Pecorino Romano, all of which are DOP protected. However, according to the European Commission’s DOOR database, there are four other regional varieties of pecorino, two of which have DOP protection (di Filiano; di Picinisco) and two of which have recently applied (Crotonese; delle Balze Volterrane). For the sake of simplicity, let’s take a look at the four main varieties in this blog post since each one alone has a history that could fill volumes.
One of the oldest Italian cheeses and also one of the most famous, Pecorino Romano doesn’t actually refer to the city of Rome. Instead, the name calls back to Roman times when this cheese was a staple in the diet of legionnaires. It is known for its intense sharpness and its dry, flaky texture, which made it perfect for the soldier on the move. Pliny the Elder and his contemporaries first chronicled the making of the cheese, which relies heavily on continuous salting to achieve its distinct character. However, in the late 19th century, Roman (the city) legislators imposed a ban on cheesemakers salting cheeses inside their shops, and so production was uprooted, shipped across the Tyrrhenian Sea, and planted on the shores of Sardinia. That’s where it remains today, protected on the island by a DOP seal and the Consorzio per la Tutela del Formaggio Pecorino Romano, the consortium that oversees and regulates all registered production.
Although methods have been modernized, warm sheep’s milk is still coagulated with lamb rennet, then the curds are drained and pressed tightly, uncooked, into wheel-shaped molds. The process is delicate and time-sensitive; the curds cannot be too warm (113-118° Fahrenheit) and must be immediately transferred to a cool, dark place, lest they spoil. In the aging room, pine boards must be washed and sanitized thoroughly, then coated with salt. For the next 80-100 days, the cheeses are salted, turned, and drained of all their moisture. Makers will usually apply a salt rub daily during the first week, then re-salt every few days or weekly for that initial period. From there, Pecorino Romano can age for five to eight months, with the older cheeses having a sharper and more powerful flavor.
Although it makes for a great topping to a pasta dish, Pecorino Romano is rarely used as an ingredient. That’s because the cheese’s low moisture content gives it an incredibly high melting point – too high for the cooking temperature for most recipes. Even so, it tastes amazing on its own and does incredibly well on any Italian cheese plate. Try our Bacon Pecorino Popcorn if you’re looking for a cool, modern Romano snack.
When the Pecorino Romano had its big move to Sardinia, it took up residence next to a familiar neighbor, Pecorino Sardo. The two use the same sheep and essential resources in their production, but Sardo is a richer, less salty member of the family. The cheese dates back to the Bronze Age and, like Romano, maintains many of its production methods, with some slight modernization.
The beginnings of the process are the same: Ewe’s milk is curdled with lamb rennet, then pressed into molds and sent to age. For Pecorino Sardo, however, the wheels get their salt by briefly soaking in brine. Then the cheese is lightly smoked – a big departure from its family members – and left alone to ripen for a good six months. When it’s ready, the final product will often have a damp smell (as there’s more moisture content in it) and a spicy salted caramel flavor with notes of fruit. Sardo is often kept for situations where Romano might be too strong, and it makes for a fine ingredient as well as a topper. Pesto alla Genovese calls for it as a primary ingredient next to Parmigiano Reggiano, or try a slice after dinner with a young red wine like Cannonau di Sardegna DOC. Check out the Consorzio di Tutela Pecorino Sardo for more information.
Surprisingly, Tuscany, as one of the Italian meccas of food, has very few DOP-recognized cheeses. However, the few it does have are total powerhouses on the Italian cheese market. Meet Pecorino Toscano, a firm, surprisingly young cheese that’s substantially milder than its other family members. Many consider it comparable to Pecorino Sardo in flavor, often attributed to the fact that many Sardinian shepherds migrated to Tuscany in the mid 20th century. Even so, little about Toscano’s process is similar beyond the initial ewe’s milk and lamb rennet coagulation.
One contrasting part of Toscano’s production is that it experiences a much cooler process; during the twenty-minute curdling period, the milk is kept between 70-76° Fahrenheit, much lower than Romano’s 113-118° temperature. Additionally, after the curds are pressed into their molds, the remaining whey is extracted very differently. In Pecorino Toscano, makers will steam the cheese, forcing plain, gaseous water to take the place of the milk byproduct. This makes it easier for the cheese to dry quickly, since water will seep out into the wooden boards when aging. From here, the cheese is brined and is ready in as little as twenty days. This is known as Toscano fresco, which is substantially mild but still retains the signature walnutty bitterness of this cheese. Its texture is comparable to Parmigiano, though they taste entirely different. If it’s left to age longer – say, to four months old – it becomes Toscano stagionato, in which the nuttiness and sweetness become far more pronounced.
Both the younger and older versions are (seeing a pattern here) great as toppers, but they’re perhaps even better at the end of a meal, sliced with some crystallized honey and a pear. There’s actually a saying for this, too: Non far sapere al contadino quant’è buona la pera col pecorino. Don’t let the farmer discover how tasty pears and cheese are. Yeah, we Italians have a saying for everything.
If you’re looking for more Pecorino Toscano recipes, the Consorzio Tutela Pecorino Toscano, DOP has some handy guides for cooking with the cheese.
Let me show you the cheese of my people. Although we might be short, our cheese is large and just about as mean as we are. The flavor is comparable to that of Romano, but that’s not something we mention aloud; instead, we prefer to say we gave rise to Romano – possibly true since the Greeks first came to the Italian peninsula by way of Sicily. Actually, the production methods of Siciliano are mentioned in the works of Ulysses, who described the cyclops Polyphemus as he packed ewe’s milk cheese into wicker baskets (the Greek view is that he was making feta, but we’re feta-p with this interpretation). This predates Pliny the Elder’s works – so, therefore, Sicilians must have started the tradition of pecorino in Italy. We even have a different name for it, Pecurinu Sicilianu, in our own
dialect language. Yeah, we’re kind of awesome like that.
On the production side, Pecorino Siciliano is kind of a mixture of everything up to this point. Ewe’s milk and lamb rennet coagulate (again), and the curds form at a temperature of around 70° Fahrenheit. From there, the curds are cut – with a wooden stick of all things – to the size of a rice grain and pressed tightly into wicker baskets, which have served as the molds since ancient times. They’re like strainers, giving the whey ample room to escape while shaping the cheese – and giving it some nice decorative lines as well. After this step, Siciliano differs in that the pressed curds are removed from the basket and heated for two to three hours, setting the cheese’s shape and allowing the enzymes inside to get to work faster. For another two days, the wheel is set on an inclined plane, which allows for further draining, and gets a rub-down of salt the day after it’s formed. Another salting happens ten days later, after which the cheese is left to age for four months in a well-ventilated room.
While it’s crumbly and just as dry as Pecorino Romano, the Siciliano member of the family isn’t anywhere near as salty. Because of this, pairing suggestions differ and are far less narrow than those of the other pecorinos. The same rules apply: salty with sweet. Therefore, try some Siciliano with a Sicilian Marsala or Moscato. However, there also exists a Pecorino Siciliano coated with pepper – called pepato – and it goes swimmingly with some traditional lemony fish dishes (Sicilians can be funny, too!). Try grating some over Tunnacchiu ‘Nfurnatu, a baked tuna dish, or Sarde a Beccafico Catanesi, Catanian stuffed sardines with pignoli and bread crumbs. And, as always, check out the Consorzio Volontario di Tutela Pecorino Siciliano, DOP for more info.
So there you go – just like any other Italian family, the pecorinos are loud, powerful, and probably shouldn’t even be in the same room together, lest the knives start flying. Even so, they’re still a family, so if you mess with one, make sure you mess with all of them.Photo Credit: Featured image courtesy of sunr93 via Compfight cc