Same recipe (milk, rennet and a lot of patience), many variations. From Sardinia to Tuscany, from Abruzzo to Sicily, that of pecorino cheese is an ancient dairy culture, which embraces the beautiful country and develops into a thousand typical products
In the beginning it was sheep's cheese
From the most ancient representations, from the great Persepolis Royal Scale to the biblical pages, everything seems to indicate that the first cheese produced could be sheep. Even the declarations of Pliny the Elder on the caseum coebanum legitimately suggest that the Piedmontese Murazzano PDO (today produced with mixed sheep and cow's milk) is to be remembered among the oldest cheeses in Italy. Country that owes much of its gastronomic history to pecorino cheese and which now counts at least forty recognized types.
The island's pastoral tradition
You say pecorino and think of the two major islands. In fact, it is up to them the leadership in the production of sheep cheeses. First of all Sardinia. The Pecorino Romano DOP (Roman because it was wanted by continental traders and industrialists who between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries studied this cheese of great appeal even among the Italian community of America. Even if the Lazio production is infinitesimal compared to the Sardinian one) it is in fact sheep cheese more produced and more exported. Its versatility in the kitchen, the predisposition to be used both as a table cheese (aromatic and slightly spicy) and grated (spicy and intense) places the quantity produced in the pantheon of Italian cheeses, just behind the better known vaccines and buffaloes. Almost unique for the light smoke that distinguishes it is the Fiore Sardo Dop, which has its chosen homeland in the central part of the island. The brown crust and the characteristic shape of the mule-backed side make it recognizable at first sight. And then there is Sicily, where another excellence is preserved, the Piacentinu ennese Dop, a pecorino produced exclusively in the central area of the island, characterized by the addition of saffron stigmas to the curd, which give the cheese its unmistakable aroma. The only stretched curd sheep's milk cheese is Vastedda del Belice Dop, which thanks to the particular processing has a sweet and pleasant aroma on the palate, with slightly acidic traces.
From the Apennines to the Tuscan Maremma
For centuries, at the stroke of autumn, shepherds came down from the Apennines towards the Tuscan Maremma and the coast, in search of winter meadows suitable for extensive exploitation. Even today, the production of sheep's milk cheeses (pure or mixed) has a homeland of choice in Tuscany, with 471 thousand sheep, mainly bred extensively. In Siena, in the late Middle Ages, the Customs of the Paschi (abolished at the end of the 1700s), which ensured the city substantial tax revenues. The particular rotary system, which destined the land for the cultivation of cereals for a year and for two or three for uncultivated, has guaranteed the survival of transhumance until recent times, leading to the birth of Pecorino Toscano Dop. Nowadays it is not easy to attend the rite of transhumance, and cheese has evolved thanks to the presence of cooperatives that collect milk from farms with permanent flocks.
Able to satisfy modern tastes with soft and semi-hard versions, it is recognized for its fragrant and sweet flavor
The one produced in the territory of Crete Senesi, appreciated for the softness and delicacy of the aromas. The tradition, which in the area has been handed down by families of Sardinian origin, has it that vegetable rennet, usually of thistle, is used for the preparation of the cheeses. The result is a pleasantly bitter aftertaste, which has contributed to its success.
Dairy art of Central Italy
The medieval use of burying caciotte in holes dug into the tuff still lives on the hills today between Romagna and Marche in the production of the pecorino di fossa di Sogliano Dop, a semi-hard and crumbly cheese with hints of undergrowth and truffles. Along theUmbrian-Marches Apennines, from Valnerina to Norcia, you arrive in Amatrice and then on the Monti della Meta, in the Aquila area: here you can find pecorino with an intense flavor and crumbly paste in the seasoned version. The most recent frontiers of pecorino, around Norcia and Cascia, are made up of the version with black truffle or aged in walnut leaves. The strong taste also characterizes the pecorino from Amatrice, which according to tradition, is produced in the period from April to July with unpasteurized milk. The products of the Abruzzo area are distinguished by the transhumance of the flocks, which for centuries moved up to the Capitanata, in Puglia. THE pecorino from Abruzzo they have the forged external appearance of the basket, where the freshly produced cheese is placed. In Campania there is an equally characteristic cheese, the Pecorino Carmasciano. It is mainly elaborated in Rocca San Felice and Guardia Lombardi, in Irpinia. Here the pasture of the flocks is conditioned by the sulfur exhalations of the mephites which give an aroma of incense to the final product.
The "caci" of the South
A historian capital of sheep's cheese is the Lucana Moliterno, in Basilicata. The characteristic of the Pecorino Canestrato di Moliterno PGI lies in the maturation, which takes place for at least two months in humid fondaci and at an almost constant temperature, elements that affect the structure of the pasta, which is never dry, and the aroma, sweet and delicate in the early stages of maturation, pungent with the continuation of the same . The area of the Monte Poro, in the Vibonese area, in Calabria, is one of the most devoted to the production of sheep's cheese. The milk of the flocks, fed extensively on pastures rich in fragrant essences, transmits strong sweet-bitter notes to the forms. Delicate and with an aftertaste reminiscent of hazelnut if young, spicy with umami veins if seasoned, these are the characteristics of Pecorino Crotonese Dop: it can be recognized by the imprints of the characteristic basket in which it rests for the first days of production, engraved on the flat faces of the cheese.
How pecorino is born
Milk. Sheep is rich in vitamin A, with a higher percentage of protein and fat than cow. It can be processed raw or after being treated with heat at low temperatures (thermization) or more strongly (pasteurization).
Curd. To "solidify" the milk, rennet is added, which can be animal or vegetable. The most used is that of veal, which gives a sweeter taste than sheep rennet, but for some years there has also been return to wild thistle vegetable rennet. The latter, extracted from the pistils of the flower and preserved in aqueous solution, gives the cheese a spicy and slightly bitter taste. We then proceed to the "break up"of the curd, an operation aimed at favor the separation of the whey: in this way grains are obtained as large as a hazelnut for a young pecorino, or as a grain of corn for a seasoned one.
Shapes. The curd is then transferred into the molds and left to drain to lose the excess liquid. The shapes come dry salted or immersed in brine and left to mature, from a minimum of 20 days to over a year.
storage. Pecorino should be kept in a cool place, wrapped in a clean cloth, in the least cold compartment of the fridge.
Variety of sheep cheeses
Pecorino Romano DOP
Produced in Lazio, but especially in Sardinia, it is tasty, aromatic and versatile in the kitchen. The young one, aged for 5 months, has a hard and compact texture that goes well with fruit compotes, cold cuts and fresh legumes, such as broad beans. The seasoned one is grainy and slightly spicy, excellent for grating on pastas such as cacio e pepe, carbonara and gricia.
Pecorino Toscano PDO (sweet)
Fresh and fragrant, it is left to mature for at least 20 days. It has a soft paste with a delicate flavor, with the typical aroma of milk. Perfect to add grated to delicious fillings and fillings or as a table cheese, to be served with nuts or in oil. It also lends itself to sweet combinations, such as the one with chestnut honey.
Fiore Sardo Dop
It is recognized for its particular convex shape called "mule's back". The paste, straw yellow, which tends to darken in the seasoned forms, has an intense and persistent smell. On the palate it is hard, crumbly, dry and grainy. The flavor is strong, slightly acidic and spicy in the more seasoned forms. Excellent table cheese when eaten young, also excellent in flakes or grated if aged.
Pecorino di Fossa di Sogliano Dop Originally from Sogliano al Rubicone (FC), owes its typical flavor to maturation: the wheels are put from August to November to mature in the "pits", sandstone cavities lined with straw and reeds. With a hard texture and an intense and spicy taste, it can be enjoyed naturally, accompanied by the sweet notes of honey and fruit jams.
Piacentino Ennese Dop
It is produced with the milk of sheep fed with plants of the Mediterranean scrub, such as sulla and vetch, which, together with the saffron stigmas and peppercorns added to the curd, determine its particular aromatic flavor. Fresh or semi-aged, it is an excellent table cheese, but it is also used for fondues and savory creams.
Pecorino Toscano Dop (aged)
It matures for a minimum of 4 months up to a year and gradually the flavor becomes more intense and structured (but never spicy or salty). It is recognized for its thin crust and compact semi-hard texture, with small irregular holes. Grated or reduced into flakes, it is perfect to sprinkle on pasta and soups or to prepare delicious savory zabaglione.
Photo by Francesca Moscheni
For this piece, published in Sale & Pepe in May 2021, Lagorio, a journalist expert in gastronomy and a regular collaborator of our magazine, received the Lattendibile Journalistic Award, announced by Assolatte for the best article dedicated to cheese.
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