What is pecorino?
Pecorino is a catch-all term for any Italian cheese that’s made entirely from sheep’s milk – pecora being Italian for sheep. There are six varieties from across Italy, with four main types that all have Protected Designation of Origin status (PDO).
What are the different types of pecorino?
Each variety of pecorino showcases different textures and flavours – from sharp and salty to mild and milky – depending on where in Italy it’s from and how long it’s aged for.
The most well known of the pecorino family, and the most assertive in terms of flavour. As the name suggests, pecorino romano has Roman roots. For over 2,000 years, the sheep-thronged plains around Lazio have supplied the milk for this cheese, which was prized by the ancient Romans for its flavour and shelf-life. You could even say that pecorino romano played a part in fuelling the expansion of the Roman empire; a chunk of the cheese (27 grams, to be precise) was given to every Legionnaire in the Roman army as part of their daily rations.
Typically aged for eight to 12 months, pecorino romano is a hard cheese with a sharp tang and pronounced saltiness. At this age, it’s most commonly used as a grating cheese. Fresher, younger pecorino romano (aged for three to five months) is often used as a table cheese; Romans traditionally pair it with the first broad beans of the season for a satisfying spring snack.
Despite its Roman origins, nowadays most pecorino romano is actually produced in Sardinia; many of Lazio’s cheesemakers moved to the island in the 19th century to take advantage of the extra space for sheep grazing, helping them keep up with the growing demand for their cheese.
Also made in Sardinia – but distinct from pecorino romano – is pecorino sardo. Richer but much less salty than pecorino romano, the Sardinian riff on pecorino has to be made from the milk of the local breed of sheep: the sarda. Young pecorino sardo is aged for just 40 days and is much sweeter, so it’s a perfect cheese for making pesto. More mature versions are hidden away for at least six months, becoming sharper the longer they’re aged. Aged pecorino sardo is more nuanced, and can hold its own as part of a cheeseboard. Pecorino sardo is the only cheese from the pecorino family that is smoked, with natural wood smoke imparting flavour and colouring the rind.
Hailing from Grosseto and Siena in the region of Tuscany, pecorino toscano is softer, creamier and more grassy than pecorino romano. It’s often sold fresh after just 20 days of ageing, but also comes in semi-aged and mature variations. Younger pecorino toscano is a popular table cheese, its delicate nuttiness marrying up beautifully with the sweetness of honey, fig or pear. Mature pecorino toscano is harder and more complex, so it’s often grated over pasta, soup or risotto as a substitute for Parmigiano Reggiano.
Another Italian island, another subtly different spin on pecorino, and one with a long and storied history. Sheep’s milk cheese has been made in Sicily since the days of the ancient Greeks; the island’s practice of making pecorino and storing it in reed baskets is even mentioned in Homer’s Odyssey, written in 800 B.C. Pecorino siciliano is milder than pecorino romano, with less of a salty hit. It’s also often flavoured with spices or ingredients like truffle or pistachio. The most popular version is probably pecorino pepato, a peppercorn-flecked pecorino that could easily be used as a shortcut to a rustic bowl of cacio e pepe.
How is pecorino made?
Despite the range of different pecorino varieties, the basic production process is very similar:
- The sheep’s milk is warmed, with rennet added to separate the curd.
- Once set, the curds are cooked until firm (some pecorino varieties are only semi-cooked, for a softer texture).
- Next, the curds are drained, formed into traditional drum-shaped moulds and pressed.
- These drums are then washed with brine, often by hand.
- Finally, the cheese is aged for anywhere from 20 days to two years in a cheese cellar.
Cooking with pecorino
Cacio e pepe: An icon of Roman cuisine that uses a handful of ingredients to create a dish that’s greater than the sum of its parts. Pecorino romano combines with toasted black peppercorns to create a creamy sauce with a signature tang – an ideal match for longer pasta shapes like pici.
Pasta all’Amatriciana: This dish comes from Amatrice in the province of Rieti, Lazio. This rustic mix of rich guanciale (cured pork cheek), fresh tomato and pecorino was first invented by shepherds, who would travel high into the mountains with their flocks before settling down to a bowl of pasta dressed with the ingredients that were easiest to carry: dried pasta, cured pork and a hunk of aged pecorino.
Sardinian Culurgiones: Traditionally from the Ogliastra province in Sardinia, culurgiones are pockets of pasta (translating to ‘little leather satchels') traditionally filled with potato, pecorino sardo, garlic and mint. Culurgiones are eaten throughout the year in Sardinia, although historically they were prepared at the end of August to mark another successful harvest season.
Is pecorino vegetarian?
Most authentic varieties of pecorino use animal rennet in their PDO-protected production processes (usually sheep rennet). This means that they aren’t suitable for vegetarians. Some supermarkets do sell pecorino made with vegetarian rennet, just make sure you check the label.
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