Pecorino Possibilities

This Italian favorite has a number of imitations, but is distinguished by sheep milk.

Napoleon is accredited with the observation that “an army marches on its stomach.” Indeed, if you want to keep an army on its feet, you need food that is cheap, portable and nutritious. It doesn’t hurt that a provision also keeps the intestinal tract resistant to bacteria and maintains electrolytes in balance in far flung outposts where foreign bugs and excessive heat can strike out troops as effectively as enemy combatants. More than 2000 years ago, the Romans had a secret weapon. Pecorino! Legions carried an ounce in their daily rations that provided supplementary protein, calcium, probiotics and sodium. Today, the military advantages are all but forgotten. Instead, consumers prize a mature pecorino, aged 10-12 months as a grating cheese or seasoning ingredient, and younger ones, aged up to six months can be fully enjoyable as table cheeses. So selecting a pecorino begins with how you plan to use it.

Pecorino is a broad term. And Pecorino Romano has its spin offs, imitators and distant relatives. But what is it exactly? The name derives from the Italian word “pecora” or sheep, and “pecorino” is the adjective describing a cheese made from ewe’s milk. You can label any imitator’s cheese “Romano,” but if it’s not made from sheep milk, it’s not Pecorino Romano. At best, it’s “Romano style.”  The genuine article is authenticated by the  protected designation of origin stamp  “DOP” that reflects a degree of adherence to traditional ingredients and methods as well the place where the cheese is made. A Pecorino Romano cannot carry the DOP attached to its appellation unless it is made in the original designated area, Lazio, which is just outside Rome, or in two other areas, Sardinia or Tuscany. At the end of the 19th century, anti-salting ordinances in Rome drove pecorino producers to set up operations outside the Eternal City, closer to pasture lands, particularly around Lazio. As demand for pecorino outstripped the space for sheep, producers fled to the vast grazing lands of Sardinia, or Sardegna in Italian. Sardinia is an ovine paradise, home to over 3.5 million sheep versus only 1.6 humans. Few producers, such as the makers of Fulvi, remain in Lazio these days. Those in other designated areas that follow traditional recipes also stamp their products DOP reflecting their particular regions; for example, Pecorino Sardo DOP and Pecorino Toscano DOP.

That brings us to Central Fromaggi of Italy, a family-owned company founded by Angostino Vallecco. Central Fromaggi is one of two companies that provided samples of pecorino for this article, the other firm being the importer Forever Cheese of the USA. Forever Cheese, which distributes products under the Mitica brand, was founded about 25 years ago by Michele Buster and Pierluigi Sini. They have a reputation for sourcing authentic, quality products including pecorino.

But let’s go back 130 years. As told to me by Jon Villecco, the great grandson of Central Formaggi’s founder, in the southern Italian region of Basilicata is the township of Moliterno; Angostino Villecco used to bring sheep milk cheese he made to age in Moliterno. In 1890, after learning about Sardinia’s burgeoning population of sheep, Villecco sailed to Sardinia, bringing with him handwoven reed baskets called canestri, used to shape the curds. The canestri leave a distinctive imprint on the cheese that communicates its handcrafted nature to today’s consumer. Angostino would make and set the cheese in Sardinia, then take it back to Moliterno for aging. He passed down his cheesemaking methods to his son, Gerardo, who moved all operations including aging to Sardinia in the 1920s. Despite the relocation, the name Moliterno survives on Central Fromaggi products. It still uses canestri for aging cheese, as do other producers. That is the origin of the name Canestrato found on many Italian cheese labels.

In terms of flavor characteristics, we can expect variation to accompany terroir. In other words, the end product will reflect where the cheese is made, the type of sheep producing the milk, the vegetation they consume, and any unique aspects of handling and production of a particular farm or dairy. For example, salting is universal to making these pecorinos or pecorini, but that process may occur at different stages, using different types of salt. Central Fromaggi uses sea salt, exclusively. Its native Sarda herd feed on the island’s wild pastures dotted with flowers, such as sulla. Central Fromaggi thermalizes, rather than fully pasturizes, for all its cheeses, whereas Genuine Fulvi from Forever Cheese/Mitica uses raw milk from a herd of Sopravissana and Siciliana sheep in its Pecorino Romano DOP. These differences contribute to each cheese’s unique terroir.

Sheep cheese, whether strictly a pecorino DOP or not, is extremely common, made by many small  farms and dairies across Italy. Locally- made pecorini are often unobtainable outside a particular village or valley. But whether widely distributed or not, the best of these cheeses require a hands-on approach. Modern techniques are refinements of ancient know-how applied to cheeses that has been made in many countries over the millennia. Homer described the basics of cheesemaking so we know that the Greeks were already producing sheep and goat cheese all around the Aegean and Mediterranean, some considered prototypes of Roman-style pecorino. Add Spain, the Basque Pyrenees, and other locales in the modern age to the list of regions producing excellent sheep cheese. Many of these foreign types can be used in the same ways as Italian pecorino; that is, grated, shaved, crumbled or consumed as table cheese. However, even though these non-Italians can stand in for Pecorino Romano, these are highly distinguishable, carrying the characteristics of unique terroirs. Manchego and Ossau-Iraty are just two that come to mind. And many carry exclusive DOPs.

Tasting the Pecorini

All samples were brought to room temperature.

About texture notes. There are cheeses that chew or melt down to a creamy consistency, others may be crunchy or grainy. But I found these pecorinos seem to melt down to varying densities of a polenta-like texture.

The following two Pecorino Romanos were both high quality, yet very different. Choice depends on what kind of statement you want the cheese to make.

Genuine Fulvi Pecorino Romano DOP, Lazio, Italy, imported by Forever Cheese

Aged 10 months-one year, described as “semi-firm,” but seemed solidly firm to me. Made from unpasteurized whole milk.

Appearance: paste is a light aged ivory color

Aroma: sheepy, a whisper of floral and distant grassy notes

Texture: a highly grateable cheese, shaveable. More flakey than crumbly.

Flavor: oil, salt and pepper, nutty, everything is mild but the salt.  

Aftertaste: oil, whisper of fruit, lemon, salt, melts to polenta mash, nutty, pleasant.

This is a classic. Use it instead of salt, grate into soups and sauces, shave onto salads or vegetable dishes.

Pecorino Romano DOP, Sardinia, producer, Central Fromaggi

Aged minimum eight months, firm, thermalized whole milk

Appearance: paste color is light vanilla custard to ivory

Aroma: very cheese forward, suppressed sheepiness

Texture: munches down to a mildly gummy polenta

Flavor: oil, ocean-in-my-face salt release

Aftertaste: salt is upfront

Traditional with a distinctive terroir. Sure, you can use it as an ingredient, but this Romano can afford a little attention. It has a nice tendency to crumble upon attempt to grate. I’d crumble it over everything. 

Pecorino Toscano DOP, Tuscany, imported by Forever Cheese

Aged over four months, pasteurized, semi-firm

Appearance: paste is the color of a natural lemon sorbet, smooth

Aroma: fresh, lactic, mildly sheepy

Texture: moist, a Gruyere consistency, solid buttery bites down to soft curd, then dries

Flavor: buttery,  mild transient yogurt or sour notes, a bit of nut. The importer’s notes mention butterscotch. I didn’t get that. Batches will vary. I got a whisper of Bavarian cream. Was I dreaming?

Aftertaste: delicate astringency, nutty, grassy

This is a pleasant younger pecorino that earns a place on a fruit or veggie plate. Serve with bread. Makes a great breakfast cheese.

This is a different animal entirely from the previously mentioned Pecorino Romanos.

Gran Cacio Etrusco, Lazio, from same producers as Pecorino Fulvi, imported by Forever Cheese

Aged six months, pasteurized, “semi-firm,” hand salted with Sicilian salt and rubbed with olive pomace and vinegar

Appearance: aged ivory with a yellow cast

Aroma: mellow, floral, olive, delicate sheep.

Texture: mild dryness, bites down to a soft polenta that totally melts out at the end

Flavor: reiterated delicate sheep, a bite releases olive flavor, salinity, nut and a suggestion of lemony fruit notes

Aftertaste: balanced, mild astringency fades, pleasant aftertaste, well controlled salinity

Shaving reveals fruit & olive notes. Too flavorful to grate. Excellent cheese!

Pecorino Sardo Maturo DOP, Sardinia, Central Fromaggi

Aged two to three months, thermalized milk

Appearance: ivory white

Aroma: pronounced sheep

Texture: melts down to fine, soft polenta

Flavor: Bold, tannic, mild bitterness, suggestion of pepper, a spikey ride

Aftertaste: oil, piquancy fades, mildly sheepy and astringent

Versatile. Serve with a fruit pastry as a counterpoint to the tannins.

Moliterno DOP, Sardinia, Central Fromaggi

Aged between four and six months, thermalized milk

Appearance: white chocolate

Aroma: lovely fragrance, subdued sheep, hint of vegetation, including floral. Tamed and balanced.

Texture: polenta cream

Flavor: delicious first bite, rich, hint of bitterness, nutty

Aftertaste: fade is balanced

Fabulous as a table cheese. Grates fine, too.

Beyond straightforward pecorinos, some producers offer exciting inclusions, such as pepper or truffle listed below. These flavored items can make cheese plates pop. Grate these into foods as ingredients to achieve a mysterious pizzaz, or shave them on to top off a dish. Sheep cheese with truffle can be a cost-effective way to layer on luxury, while pecorino with pepper energizes the palate.

Rustico Black Pepper, imported by Forever Cheese

Aged 40 days, pasteurized

Appearance: paste is white with yellowish cast interspersed with black peppercorns

Aroma: lemony, sheepy and of course, peppery

Texture: at room temperature, a meltable polenta consistency

Flavor: pepper permeates the whole, tempers the sheepiness and balances the flavors

Aftertaste: as flavor fades, pepper surprisingly cools the mouth. Refreshing!

Moliterno al Tartufo, Sardinia, producer, Central Fromaggi

Aged six months. The base is Moliterno DOP. Central Fromaggi uses a unique technology to inject genuine black truffle into this cheese. The flavor is full-bodied with the truffle’s beefy-umami notes. Serve it on toast points like caviar! Or grate onto any pasta al dente.

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