The term “pecorino” refers to the big family of sheep milk cheeses. The story of these dairy products is so old and deep-rooted in our country, that there are many sheep milk cheeses with a great importance in our culinary scenery. Among these, we can find the classical “pecorino”, as Pecorino Romano, Sardo, Crotonese, Siciliano or Toscano, and other products of the same category, as Canestrato Pugliese and Piacentinu Ennese, all PDO. In particular, we will talk about the history, production and characteristics of the ancestor of this family: Pecorino Romano DOP.
History and curiosities
Cheese is one of the most ancient foods in our gastronomic culture. In particular, since the Ancient Latins age, shepherds started to use sheep milk to realize tasteful and nutrient cheeses. Many Latin authors, in fact, mentioned sheep milk cheeses in their poems.
For example, the Latin poet Virgilio allowed us to know that these cheeses were eaten everyday by soldiers. According to the poet, an ounce – less than 30 grams – of pecorino cheese “had the function to reduce strain”. We find other evidences of the ancient Pecorino Romano even in “De re rustica”, a series of essays about agriculture, in which are described all the passages necessary to produce it.
Despite its name, Pecorino Romano is produced not only in Lazio, but also in Toscana and Sardegna, in the provinces of Grosseto, Cagliari, Nuoro, Oristano and Sassari. The second part of the name is linked mostly to the historical origins of this cheese, which dates back exactly in the Ancient Rome.
On the contrary, the production of Pecorino Romano, from the end of 1800s, moved outside the capital, because of the state decision to prohibit the salting of cheese inside the city. For this reason, many shepherds and manufacturers decided to move in the surrounded regions, first of all Sardegna.
In the second part of Fifties, with the Congresso di Stresa, it was recognized to Sardinian manufacturers the right to produce Pecorino Romano. In 1996, with the Protected Designation of Origin, European Community considered this factor, extending the regional limits imposed by the Regulation even in Sardegna and part of Toscana, where the production of Pecorino Romano is very high still today.
Production and Regulation
Pecorino Romano is a cheese with a great history, which is made now as then with the same techniques and the same passion. For this reason, in 1996 has been recognized the Protected Designation of Origin for this important cheese, whose production is controlled by a severe Regulation.
Since more than 30 years, Consorzio per la Tutela del formaggio Pecorino Romano controls and enhance the name of this cheese, in order to guarantee the originality and genuineness, from the smaller to the larger factories.
The production of Pecorino Romano DOP occurs now as then with the same techniques of many centuries ago, which however were able to adapt to the modern innovations.
Milk comes from sheep bred in the wild and fed with natural pastures, in the regions of Sardegna, Lazio and part of Toscana. Fresh milk is added with natural starter bacteria and rennet, necessary to allow the coagulation. Once that rennet is ready, it is broken is little pieces, with the dimensions of a grain of rice.
Therefore, curd is extracted, cut in pieces and put in the specific molds, in which it will be pressed to allow the exit of buttermilk, and then salted dry on in brine. At this point wheels are transferred in specific rooms, where the seasoning can start.
Some factories prefer to left cheese to mature inside natural tuff caves, in which the constant humidity makes it a unique product.
Pecorino Romano can be put in the market for table use with a seasoning of 5 months, while the seasoned cheese for grating requires at least 8 months.
On the lateral part of Pecorino Romano DOP we can see the obligatory stamp, on which there are the PDO mark, the typical symbol of cheese – the stylized head of a sheep – and the information about the factory.
Taste and characteristics
Pecorino Romano DOP has unmistakable features. The aspect that makes it so famous worldwide is especially its aromatic, salty and pungent taste. In particular, the spiciness of Pecorino becomes more intense as the months goes by. The aromaticity and the particular scent, instead, is due to the fact that sheep are bred carefully, obtaining a high quality milk.
Pecorino Romano DOP has a cylindrical shape, quite tall, with a smooth and very thin rind, on which are stamped the information included by the Regulation. The external color is light, ivory with some straw-yellow shades. Anyway, some wheels are covered with a thin layer of a black protective film.
The internal part is compact, with small holes, white in the less mature wheels, intense straw-yellow in the aged cheese. The texture is more friable as the seasoning goes by.
Pecorino Romano is a versatile cheese, good for many uses and combinations. The less mature wheels can be eaten alone or with a slice of crunchy bread, as Pane di Altamura or di Matera, both PDO.
The aged cheese, instead, because of its compact texture and the spicy taste, is good grated on everyday dishes. For what concerns the combinations, Pecorino Romano marries perfectly many ingredients, from vegetables to meat.
In particular, a typical combination from Lazio is fresh fava beans with some Pecorino flakes, for a good starter or a rustic appetizer. At the same time, this cheese can be served with many fresh vegetables, as crunchy celery or green beans.
Pecorino Romano appears in many traditional recipes of our Country. For example, we find Pesto Genovese or “alla” Genovese, made pressing in a mortar garlic, salt, basil, pine nuts, extra virgin olive oil and some Italian excellent dairy products, Parmigiano Reggiano DOP or Grana Padano DOP and Pecorino Romano DOP. This cheese cannot miss even in another traditional recipes, Pasta alla Carbonara and Pasta all’Amatriciana.
The most indicated wines to exalt the saltiness and the freshness of younger Pecorino Romano are white wines, not too delicate, as Castelli Romani DOC and Frascati DOC, with a dish of anchovies and Pecorino.
For the aged cheese, instead, is necessary an intense wine, able to resist to its strong and spicy taste. For example, we can choose a Cannonau di Sardegna DOC or a Brunello di Montalcino DOCG, red wine from Tuscany particularly intense and scented.