Region: Central and Southern Italy
Milk: Sheep, sometimes sheep and goat
Texture: Semi-firm to hard
Pecorino is the name given to all Italian cheeses made from sheep’s milk. There are seemingly infinite regional and local varieties of pecorino with hundreds of different types made throughout the central and southern regions of Italy.
The unique allure and complex flavours of Italian pecorino cheese is undeniably linked to the serene environment in which the sheep are raised, and the wholesome grasses on which they feed. A great pecorino cheese contains all the layered scents and heady aromas of the open pastures where the sheep graze.
There are almost as many adjectives and terms for describing the complicated and varied tastes and tonalities of pecorino as there are for wine—descriptions ranging from “tangy” to “straw overtones” and “smoky perfumes.” The word pecorino derives simply from “pecora,” the Italian word for sheep.
Pecorino can be described as a firm, salty cheese made from fresh whole sheep’s milk—occasionally from a blend of sheep and goat’s milk. It’s available in three different forms: fresh or “pecorino fresco”; semi-hard or “semi-stagionato”; and hard or “stagionato.” (Stagionatura is the Italian term for “seasoned” or “aged.”) The longer the pecorino ages, the saltier and harder it becomes—making it excellent for grating. As the most commonly used accompaniment to pasta dishes in the lower two-thirds of Italy, pecorino is one of the most essential cheeses in Italian cuisine.
The cacio, as pecorino is called in Tuscany, is shaped into a cylindrical form and allowed to rest and season naturally in cool temperatures and very low light, with only a certain amount of humidity—maturing for a few weeks (pecorino fresco) or for six months to a year (pecorino stagionato). The taste of the cacio varies not only according to the quality of the sheep’s milk, but also according to the way it’s preserved and aged. In some cases, spices or herbs are added during the production process—for instance, for Sicilian Pecorino pepato black pepper is added; the celebrated Calabrese Pecorino al peperoncino combine chili peppers. Occasionally, the cheese forms are even filled with truffles, as in Pecorino al tartufo or walnuts as in Pecorino alle Noci.
The methods used for preserving pecorino in Italy widely vary. Salt is the main method used—for instance in Pecorino Romano; but in Tuscany, Umbria and other regions, there is a great inventiveness in how pecorini (plural form) are preserved—for example, Pecorino rosso is rubbed with homemade tomato paste, giving a reddish color to the outside of the cheese. For Pecorino sotto cenere, the pecorino wheels are buried in oak ashes—sometimes collected from local pizzerias!—inside huge terracotta vases, which are stored in cool, shady places. Another method is to allow the cheese to mature on shelves built into natural caves—called “grotte” or “fosse”—that are formed in the soft, spongy-looking rock called tufa, common in Tuscany and Umbria. In mountainous regions, the cheese is aged in sheds made specifically for that purpose. Each of these methods for aging yields different textures, densities, and flavours.
Probably the most successful pecorino in Canada is the Pecorino Romano, D.O.P.—an acronym that signifies that the European Union has conferred their “protected designation of origin” label—certifying that this cheese is produced only in the regions of Lazio, Sardinia and Tuscany, and that it is made only from specific breeds of sheep, and that strict methods of production are followed. Pecorino Romano is a hard cheese and quite salty; unlike other varieties, in Italy it’s considered unsuitable as a formaggio da tavola (table cheese) and is basically used only for grating over pasta.
Simplicity is the essence of pecorino. Italians usually eat it just as it is, accompanied simply with olives. It can also be served with preserved vegetables—such as artichokes or eggplant—or raw vegetables. Other common parings include various cured meats or it is married with fruit, such as pears or homemade marmalades. Usually pecorino is not used with cream sauces or risotto—or other dishes associated with northern Italy where pecorino is not produced. Nowadays, high-quality imported Italian pecorino is available at Herma’s—paired with just a good glass of wine … puoi toccare il cielo (you can touch the sky).