If you’ve never had Pecorino cheese directly from Italy, you’re in for a treat. This sheep’s milk cheese can be hard or soft and comes in hundreds of varieties. Despite this, there are four main types, which boast being the “holy grail” of Pecorino. All four enjoy protected PDO (Protected Destination of Origin) status (known as DOP in Italian). This means that pecorino accompanied by this distinguished label is produced in a manner and location specifically outlined by the European Union, often adhering to ancient standards. Everything from the aging of the cheese, the type of sheep that can produce it, to the way it is cured, is tightly controlled. The following four protected variations of Pecorino are all unique, delicious and absolutely should not be missed while you’re in Italy – they only place where you can truly enjoy them in their freshest (or oldest) form.
Pecorino Romano PDO/DOP
This hard, salty, aged cheese is produced in Sardinia, Lazio and the Tuscan province of Grosseto. It is one of the most popular varieties of Pecorino that can be found outside, and inside, of Italy. Additionally, it is one of the oldest varieties of cheeses in Italia, dating back almost two thousand years. Famous ancient Romans, such as Pliny the elder and Virgil extolled its virtues as part of a healthy diet and Pecorino Romano was even rationed to solders before battle to help ease fatigue. It has a strong flavor and is produced by aging for about one year (although it can sometimes be aged for shorter or longer).
How to enjoy it: This cheese is best grated, due to its salty, hard nature. You can try it in place of parmigiano reggiano if cooking for yourself, or find it on the menu in such dishes as cacio e pepe or l’amatriciana at restaurants.
Pecorino Sardo PDO/DOP
Also know as Fiore Sardo this is a raw, hard cheese produced on the Italian island of Sardinia. Strict standards indicate that each cheese must be made from a single flock of local Sardinian sheep. The cheese is aged six months and is less hard than its Roman counterpart. It has a dark brown rind, and boasts a sour, earthy smell. This Pecorino is rich and can come in a variety of flavors, ranging from caramel sweet, to salty, to spicy or even floral.
How to enjoy it: Because of the complexity of flavors in this cheese, it is wonderful served as an antipasto. It also makes a great counterpart to wine, and enjoying it with both mature and young varieties would bring out the some of the distinctive underlying tastes and scents. Alternatively, it can be grated on top of dishes in place of Pecorino Romano, although eating it this way disguises some its uniqueness.
Unlike the other two Pecorino cheeses, Tuscan Pecorino is a soft or semi hard ewe’s milk cheese and only aged for 1-6 months, on average. The rind is often straw yellow and isn’t very hard to the touch like the previous varieties. It can also be found with a red rind, made from tomato dye, which is a clear indication that the Pecorino is a Sienese variety. This cheese is flavorful and fragrant, sometimes smelling of the local herbs and grass that the sheep ate. It is not however a pungent cheese and it shouldn’t smell strong or biting to the nose.
How to enjoy it: Pecorino Toscano is a pleasing mild cheese that is good for those who don’t like strong cheeses. It can be enjoyed as part of an antipasto, with other richer meats and sides, or in a panino. The younger varieties are a great choice for kids, as those who already know and like mozzarella will find it has a similar, pleasing milky mildness.
This is easily the most unique of the four PDO varieties. The cheese is aged in fasceddi or special rattan baskets, giving the rind a particular, identifiably wrinkly exterior. It is then cured with salt a day after production, further distinguishing it from its other PDO counterparts. Pecorino Siciliano is made from sheep milk of free grazing animals and the specific pastures of the Sicilian countryside impart an earthiness to the finished product. However, this is not a mild cheese; the flavor is intense and sometimes spicy due to the fact that it is aged for four months. Interestingly, this cheese may be one of the oldest cheeses in Europe, as in 900 B.C. Homer quoted Ulysses in The Odyssey saying, “he curdled half the milk and set it aside in wicker strainers”. The wicker strainers give an indication that he was likely referring specifically to Pecorino Siciliano. Pliny the Elder (who must have really loved his Pecorini) also wrote in the first century A.D. that he found the Pecorino Siciliano to be the best of all the varieties.
How to enjoy it: With multiple millennia of history behind it, this is a cheese you need to try. Enjoying it plain as part of an antipasto definitely the easiest way to appreciate its textures and flavors. Alternatively, if you can find arancini di riso (delicious fried balls of rice and cheese) they are sometimes made with this pecorino variety.
Enjoy your pecorino!
The best way to enjoy pecorino is straight up! Slice and display on a plate, either plain, or enhanced with local honey and jams. Figs and grapes are a great accompaniment. If you’re tasting multiple types of pecorino at once, arrange them on the plate from mildest to most aged, and start your tasting with the mild one to get the most out of its delicate flavours. Of course, it goes without saying that pecorino cheese is a born accompaniment for red Chianti Classico wine. The aged pecorino, for example, goes great with a Dievole Novecento Chianti Classico Reserve.