Pecorino is made from ewe’s milk (the Italian for sheep is ‘pecora’). Pecorino cheeses can be sold in three broadly defined degrees of age: young or fresco aged for a minimum of four weeks; aged or stagionata aged for minimum 4 months; semi-aged or semi-stagionata aged somewhere in-between. All pecorinos can be sold at different ages. They are formed into satisfying squat barrel shapes or small flattened mini-cob loaf shapes.
The rind will be treated according to the traditions of the regions and can range in colour from waxy pale white, light yellow and orange to burnished umber. The rind might be flavoured with various products to enhance the cheese, such as olive oil, tomato, grape must or ash.
Pecorino cheese is given protection with the DOP label. The designation is a guarantee that it has been produced, matured, packaged and distributed according to specific rules and methods.
The following are representative of a selection that can be found in a typical Italian delicatessen – listed oldest to youngest:
- Pecorino Romano (bottom right): this is a hard, aged, snowy-white cheese. It is not to everyone’s taste. It’s quite salty – and has a strong scent and taste of sheep. In ancient Rome, the cheese was packed by Legionnaires on their travels (presumably to replace the salt sweated-out on long marches). Meanwhile, the ancient Roman pecorino cheese-makers were banned from salting their cheese in the Roman markets and had to move on; setting-up new operations in Sardinia – where it is still made today. Use where a strong and intense seasoning is required – such as with carpaccio of beef or bresaola. Traditionally used in spaghetti carbonara.
- Pecorino Siciliano stagionata (bottom left): This aged cheese has a spicy fragrance, tastes of butter and is nutty and salty. It has a crumbly texture and is very similar to Parmesan. Pecorino Siciliano is the oldest cheese of Sicily, and mentioned in the Homer’s Odyssey – it’s still made using time-honoured processes and the same land and pastures. Try grated over pasta, risotto or polenta.
- Pecorino Tuscano (top left): This is a semi-aged version and has a slight waxy, crumby and crystalline quality. It tastes nutty, salty and sweet and with hints of caramel and is very similar to a mature Manchego. This Tuscano would go well pears and walnuts and drizzle of acacia or orange blossom honey or like Manchego, with membrillo or artichokes.
- Pecorino Sardo or Sardinian pecorino (top middle) – a semi-stagionata. Made from the same raw materials as the Romano cheese, but less intense and salty. The taste and texture vary depending on its age. A younger cheese is sweeter, semi-hard and ivory-white, while a mature cheese is hard, straw-yellow and with a richer taste. A younger cheese is quite delicious on its own, or served with chunks of bread, toast or oat crackers and fruit and nuts. A more mature Sardo is crumbly and can be grated. It is often paired with Parmigiano Reggiano in the classic pesto all Genovese.
- Tuscan soft (fresco) Pecorino (top right): This tastes very fresh and milky. It would go well on a cheese board. But I should warn you – it’s addictive. Buy a piece, but don’t sample, otherwise it might not make it all the way home.