Seriously Italian: In Praise of Pecorino

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Pecorino from Pienza tastes different from that made in Maremma, which is distinctive from what you find in Chianti, and so on.

Editor's note: On Thursdays, Babbo pastry chef Gina DePalma checks in with Seriously Italian. After a stint in Rome, she's back in the States, channeling her inner Italian spirit via recipes and intel on delicious Italian eats. Take it away, Gina!

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Pecorino from Pienza tastes different from that made in Maremma, which is distinctive from what you find in Chianti, and so on.

My mouth is watering for Pecorino Toscano this week, probably because I featured it in the dessert I prepared at the Pebble Beach Food & Wine Festival last weekend. Not that I needed a reminder—we’ve always featured this DOP (Denominazione di Origine Protetta, or Protected Designation of Origin) sheep’s milk cheese on our menu at Babbo, and over the last decade I’ve tasted a delectable array of offerings from Tuscany’s best artisan producers.

If Parmigiano-Reggiano is the undisputed king of all cheeses, then Pecorino Toscano must be considered a prince.

“Pecorino” as a label can be a source of confusion for American consumers, since we are most likely to identify the word only with Pecorino Romano, the hard, snowy-white grating cheese easily found in supermarkets and delis, pre-grated into plastic tubs or sold in fat, stacked wedges. While equally majestic for its own qualities, Pecorino Romano is an entirely different cheese: firmer, dryer, saltier, made with a unique process and given its own separate DOP status.

A first encounter with Pecorino Toscano as a table cheese is a revelation; depending on the age it can be bright and grassy or buttery and nutty, but always rich, concentrated and ultimately unforgettable.

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Loosely applied, “pecorino” can refer to any cheese made with sheep’s milk, and many of Italy’s localities produce and consume their own versions, sometimes referred to as cacio, a holdover from pre-consortium and EEC days. Pecorino Toscano DOP is specifically made in Tuscany, Lazio and Umbria, and just as with wine, each micro-region within the DOP zone lends its own characteristics through its particular terroir. Pecorino from Pienza tastes different from that made in Maremma, which is distinctive from what you find in Chianti, and so on.

Shaped into a plump cylinder, Pecorino Toscano can be rindless, or treated with any number of products as it ages to further enhance the flavor of the cheese. Sometimes the rind is rubbed with olive oil or a concentrated paste of fresh tomato. It may be aged in grape must, or wrapped in walnut or chestnut leaves, or coated in black ash from burned olive wood. Truffles or peperoncino are sometimes added to the paste before the cheese is shaped.

Fresh pecorino is paler in color; the curd is left relatively large, keeping it semisoft and moist, yielding easily to the knife. A young pecorino has a friendly tang, with the flavor and aroma of sweet grasses and meadow flowers. Older pecorinos are aged around six months or more, very firm, burnished on the outside, with a hue that ranges from ivory to deep golden on the inside. The curd is broken into much smaller pieces and pressed to extract the moisture, developing a deeply nutty flavor and creamy-rich mouth feel.

Ten years ago it was pretty hard to find Pecorino table cheeses such as Pecorino Toscano or Sardo outside of cheese shops or Italian specialty stores, but now I am psyched to see it making inroads into some well-stocked supermarkets. If you can’t find it near you, there’s always the mail-order option, with many fine selections offered by quality vendors like Murray’s, Artisanal, Formaggio Kitchen or A.G. Ferrari.

Once you get your hands on a wheel or wedge, these are some of my favorite ways to enjoy this special cheese; all of the below ideas will work with Pecorino Toscano, Sardo, or any other Italian cacio:

  • Try a fresh, young or medium-aged pecorino with fresh pears and a drizzle of Italian chestnut or acacia honey, a classic combination that is enjoyed throughout Tuscany and beyond.
  • Pair an aged Pecorino stagionato with a bowl of toasted walnuts, or a rustic loaf of walnut bread, toasted and warm—the bitter edge of the walnuts compliments the rich, nutty flavor of the cheese perfectly.
  • Grate lots of Pecorino (young, old, or both) into ravioli filling for fresh pasta. Try fresh ricotta, sheep’s milk if you can find it, with chopped, sautéed swiss chard a bit of grated nutmeg.
  • Make a delicious bowl of soup—divide sautéed escarole or chicory among individual bowls, ladle over a rich, hot chicken broth with shredded chicken meat and grate plenty of Pecorino over the top with a drizzle of good olive oil.
  • Try the non-Roman version of Cacio e Pepe. Toss hot spaghetti with a bit of butter and olive oil, add peperoncino and plenty of grated Pecorino Toscano.
  • Eat Pecorino with fresh fava beans! This is another classic flavor combination enjoyed in the spring and summer. Pop young beans in your mouth raw, or make a crostino: blanch them, dress with olive oil, salt and pepper, pile onto toasted bread rounds and shave Pecorino over the top.