An ancient cheese full of modern possibilities.
The name ‘pecorino’ comes from the Italian word pecora, which means “sheep.” Pecorino is a broad term for any cheese crafted with sheep’s milk in Italy, from silky, creamy young varieties to the famous aged, salty Pecorino Romano.
It’s one of the oldest cheeses around, linking us back to a time when sheep were an essential source of food and livelihood for rural communities on the hillsides and valleys of what is now Italy. The first historical records of pecorino being made and enjoyed come from nearly 2,000 years ago, in the works of the Roman writer Pliny the Elder. “Roman legionaries survived off of pecorino they invaded,” explains Jen Lopez, an account manager at Forever Cheese, based in Astoria, NY. “Pecorino was part of their pay and rations.”
“There is a huge array of pecorino cheeses ranging in shape, size and age,” says Lydia Burns, founder of the Yarmouth, ME-based cheese consulting company Savvy Squirrel Consulting. Burns also works for the boutique cheese importer Rogers Collection. “There’s a wonderful diversity of pecorino being made across Italy, where the tradition and styles really vary from region to region. It can be confusing for customers, but also exciting,” Burns adds.
Sheep’s milk has a bold flavor and luscious richness, in part due to its butterfat content: on average, sheep’s milk is 7.4% butterfat compared to 3.7% for cows and 3% for goats. It also contains more lactose and minerals than either. “Sheep’s milk cheeses have a great supple texture because of their higher fat and casein content,” Burns explains. “There are tangy, light flavors in lactic younger cheeses, and then a more intense flavor as it ages, with rich notes of olive oil. The flavor of the milk itself really stands out.”
Beyond Pecorino Romano
Pecorino Romano, from the regions of Lazio and Sardinia, is the variety most familiar to Americans—often grated atop pasta or salad for a rich dimension of salty, savory depth. But this cheese is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the diversity of pecorino cheeses, which vary in terroir, age, size and flavor. Pecorino cheeses aren’t just for grating!
Six varieties of pecorino cheese have European PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) status in Italy—Pecorino Romano, from the island of Sardinia as well as the regions of Umbria and Lazio; Pecorino Sardo from Sardinia; Pecorino Toscano from Tuscany; Pecorino di Filiano from Basilicata; Pecorino Crotonese from the province of Crotone in Calabria; and Pecorino Siciliano from Sicily.
Pecorino is available in Italy in three main types: fresco, semi-stagionato and stagionato. Stagionato (“seasoned” or “aged”) are the most mature wheels, with a crumbly texture and more concentrated nutty flavors that pack a punch. They’re also usually the wheels that are imported to the U.S. and elsewhere; their age, lower water content and size gives them a longer shelf life and makes them heartier. Fresco is the youngest type of pecorini, with a softer, creamier texture and a fresh lactic flavor that shines through. Semi-stagionato, or semi-aged, is somewhere in the middle.
Sheep’s milk cheeses throughout history have been a great canvas for cheesemakers to experiment, to show off their creativity and innovation, and that tradition continues today.
Lopez says Pecorino Camomilla is produced in May and June in the region of Emilia Romagna, when the sheep graze on the best grass of the year and the fields are covered with chamomile flowers. In the city of Gambettola, cheesemaker Paolo Farabegoli was inspired by memories of his grandmother, who would keep cheese in large wooden crates covered with fresh-cut chamomile to preserve wheels as they aged. The process maintained the cheese’s softness and imparted it with a truly unique floral aroma.
Farabegoli has spent the last several years dedicated to recreating this one-of-a-kind cheese. It’s gorgeous—the wheels are coated in golden chamomile flowers—with notes of green apple and honeyed herbal tea. “What really makes it stand out is that the aromatics are an integral part of the aging process, and not just decoration,” says Lopez.
The rind of Pecorino Foglie di Noce is rubbed with olive oil before being buried in wooden crates with walnut leaves, which are only available twice a year. After several months of aging, this cheese develops a deeply nutty aroma and flavor. Pecorino Ginepro is bathed in balsamic vinegar (a local specialty of Emilia Romagna) and juniper berries and then aged in oak barrels. Full of flavor, musty aromas yield to a lingering fruity, woodsy finish with hints of juniper.
In Sardinia, the larvae of the cheese fly (yes, maggots) are intentionally introduced into Pecorino Sardo to produce a local delicacy called casu marzu, which means “rotten cheese”. The cheese is banned from commercial sale, but Sardinians have been eating it, writhing grubs and all, for centuries.
Sardinia: Pecorino Heaven
Why is Pecorino Romano made in Sardinia and not in Rome? In the late 19th century, legislators in the city of Rome imposed a ban on cheesemakers salting cheeses inside their shops, and so production shipped across the Tyrrhenian Sea to the shores of Sardinia, the island that famously has more sheep than people. That’s where it stays today, protected with the DOP seal and the Consorzio per la Tutela del Formaggio Pecorino Romano, the consortium that oversees and regulates all production.
Sardinia is the second largest island in the Mediterranean Sea, after Sicily. It has more than a thousand miles of coastline, sandy beaches and rugged landscapes dotted with thousands of nuraghi, Bronze Age stone ruins. The rocky, dry land makes it a difficult place for farming, but a perfect environment for raising sheep. Shepherding is at the heart of Sardinian culture, and pecorino has been made on the island since prehistoric times. There’s even a breed of sheep called Sarda that are indigenous to the island.
As Pecorino Romano moved its production to Sardinia, other cheesemakers flocked to the island. “Today, you can find cheeses from all over Italy being made in Sardinia, plus cheeses from Spain and France,” says Efiso Villecco, third generation owner of Central Formaggi, in Serrenti. His son Jon Villecco is the 4th generation leader of the cheese company, in charge of U.S Operations.
In the late 19th century, Efisio Villecco’s grandfather Agostino Villecco, an enterprising cheesemaker from southern Italy, moved to the sheep-filled Mediterranean island to satisfy a mainland demand for pecorino cheese. The family made wheels in handmade reed baskets (canestre) woven from junco, a plant native to Sardinia. (Different size and shape baskets often connoted the work of different cheesemakers or different styles of pecorino.)
Efiso Villecco has honored his family tradition of artisan cheesemaking, but he’s an experimenter and innovator by nature; he’s not afraid to take risks and mix things up. He created Moliterno al Tartufo, an award-winning recipe that starts with the family’s generations-old recipe and then adds a delicious twist—black truffle. After the cheese develops its own flavors as it matures for three or four months, the aromatic, earthy flavor of summer black truffle is infused throughout the wheel. It is then vacuum sealed and left to age another 30 to 40 days. The truffle veins add a beautiful, distinct look and a decadent flavor that makes scrambled eggs or a simple bowl of pasta feel incredibly decadent.
Today, Central collects about 14 million liters of milk annually and produces 50 different varieties of cheese at its facility in the town of Serrenti. Its milk ricotta, made in the U.S. with whey coming straight from Sardinia, is wonderfully rich and surprisingly low in fat. It makes a semi-aged, creamy pecorino called Perfetto that is mild yet complex as well as aged pecorino infused with spicy pepperoncino, one with Tellicherry black peppercorns, and many more lines.
The Many Uses of Pecorino
Burns notes that when she presents chefs with a lineup of cheeses, they’re almost always drawn to the sheep’s milk varieties. “The distinctive flavor profile makes pecorino a great finishing cheese,” she says. She makes a salad with shaved, raw Brussels sprouts, toasted walnuts and shaved pecorino, simply dressed with lemon juice, olive oil, salt and pepper. It’s crunchy, savory and addictive—the pecorino is what makes it sing.
In Tuscany, you’ll find young or medium-aged pecorino paired with sweet ripe pears and a drizzle of Italian chestnut or acacia honey, a classic combination worth recreating at home.
You can embrace the nutty quality of pecorino by pairing it with a bowl of toasted walnuts or warm slice of walnut bread—the bitter twinge of the walnuts plays perfectly off the rich, nutty flavor of aged pecorino (This would be a fun way to serve Pecorino Foglie di Noce, too.)
Pecorino Romano is such a classic grating cheese, in part, because its low moisture content keeps it from melting. Try the classic Roman treat of pecorino with fresh fava beans, enjoyed in the spring and summer. Dress blanched favas with olive oil, salt and pepper, spoon on a toasted round of bread and shave a generous pile of pecorino on top. Most varieties of aged pecorino are heavenly grated or shaved atop soup, stew, pizza, pasta or salad.
Literally “cheese and pepper”, cacio e pepe is also a great, soul-satisfying application of pecorino. The ingredients of the classic Roman dish are as simple as it gets: black pepper, grated Pecorino Romano cheese, butter and spaghetti (or traditionally tonnarelli, a short, twisty pasta shape). Try Pecorino Toscano with a bold Chianti Classico. The savory notes in a Chianti bring out the herbal flavor of the cheese, and the wine’s big, juicy fruit stands up to Pecorino Toscano’s rich flavors. Savor piquant Pecorino Romano with Barolo or Gattinara, which create the cheese’s sharp salinity shine. Add some rustic bread and fresh figs, and you just might have the perfect bite.