Pecorino cheese is any hard, semi-hard or fresh cheese that is made using sheep's milk. Seven pecorino cheeses have protected designation of origin status, or DOP, under the European union law. This means they’ve been aged upwards of 8 months and are a stagionato, pasta dura (hard) cheese. The Italian word for sheep is pecora, which stems from the Latin word pecus (livestock), hence the name pecorino.
Probably the best-known of the DOP pecorino cheeses is Pecorino Romano. Pecorino Romano dates back 2000 years to Roman times. Authors Pliny the Elder and Varro wrote about this cheese. It was often given to Roman soldiers during wartimes as it would last a long time. The daily allotment per soldier was 27 grams along with some bread and farro. Shepherds would carry Pecorino Romano with them when they took their livestock off to to the mountains to graze for weeks at a time so that they would have something to eat with bread, or to grate on top of pasta.
Pecorino Romano uses lamb rennet paste from animals raised in the same production area to help coagulate the sheep’s milk. In the Roman countryside cheese producers would cut up pieces of dried calves’ stomachs and add it to a salt water solution or whey, along with vinegar or wine to help lower the pH. After a few days the rennet was filtered and used to coagulate the sheep’s milk. Here’s how it’s made:
The milk is heated to a maximum temperature of 68ºC, below boiling temperature, for about 15 minutes. Rennet is then added and the milk is heated to 38ºC-40ºC. When the milk begins to coagulate the cheesemaker stirs to break up the curd and what you’re left with is bits no bigger than a grain of rice. The cheese is then placed in baskets or molds and the whey is drained off. At this point the cheese is placed in a cool, dark place and sprinkled with salt. Pecorino Romano must be aged at least five months for a table cheese, and eight months for the stagionato, DOP, gratable cheese.
You’ll recognize a DOP Pecorino Romano by the logo stamped onto the wheels: a rhombus with rounded corners and a stylized sheep’s head in the center, along with the name Pecorino Romano. The cheese wheels must have a diameter of 25-35 centimeters, and they can be 25-40 centimeters tall and weigh from 20-35 kilograms. Pecorino Romano has a 36% fat content.
As far back as Roman times, and all the moreso nowadays with so many vegetarians, plant-based substitutes for animal rennet are often used to coagulate many cheeses; in the Mediterranean thistle leaves, caper leaves, nettles and mallow are used. DOP Pecorino Romano only uses animal rennet.
Grated Pecorino Romano is used instead of Parmesan cheese for most of Rome’s best known signature pasta dishes like cacio e pepe, amatriciana and pasta alla carbonara. It’s sharp, salty and wonderfully flavorful so it lends itself perfectly to these pasta dishes.
May 1st (Italian Labor Day) is always celebrated with family and friends in the Roman countryside with Pecorino Romano and freshly harvested fava beans. A hunk of cheese is placed on an outdoor table, and as you peel and open the fava pods you pop beans in your mouth along with a bite of cheese. Absolutely delicious!
There are six other DOP pecorino cheeses, each with their own distinct history and tradition: Pecorino Sardo, Pecorino Toscano, Pecorino Crotonese, Pecorino di Filiano, Pecorino di Picinisco and Pecorino Siciliano. Each one is produced in a different region of Italy, with its own slightly different aging process and aging times. DOP pecorino cheeses are stagionato (aged) cheeses made with sheep's milk. What distinguishes them from one another is the amount and type of sheep’s milk used coupled with variations in how, and how long, the cheese is aged.
Pecorino Sardo is the only pecorino made with whole sheep’s milk.
Pecorino Toscano is made in the Tuscany region and dates back at least to the first century. This cheese is mentioned by Pliny the Elder in his book Monumental Naturalis Historia. This pecorino has a 40% fat content.
Pecorino Crotonese is made in the Crotone province of Calabria. It uses two thirds sheep's milk and one third cow's milk.
Pecorino di Picinisco is produced in the Frosinone area of the Lazio region, as well as the Abruzzo region north of Lazio. It uses a mixture of sheep's and up to 25% goat’s milk.
Pecorino di Filiano is produced in the Potenza region of Basilicata and uses only one specific breed of sheep for this cheese. It's aged for 180 days in caves or other underground spaces that provide the right temperature and humidity conditions. References to this cheese date back to the 1600’s.
Pecorino Siciliano dates back to ancient times when it was considered to be one of the best cheeses in the world. It too is mentioned by Pliny the Elder in his book Monumental Naturalis Historia; It's also cited in Homer’s Odyssey. In Sicilian dialect it's known as Picurino Sicilianu. Pecorino Siciliano is aged for a minimum of 9 months.
Pecorino cheese is often embellished with additional flavors. This one is aging in hay:
This one is flavored with truffles:
Pecorino cheese has three aging classifications: fresh (fresco), semi-hard (semi-stagionato), and hard (stagionato or pasta dura). All of the DOP pecorino cheeses are stagionato.
The freshest cheese made using sheep’s milk is ricotta di pecora and it’s this cheese that’s used to make ravioli filling. When we buy fresh ricotta in Italy we truly mean fresh: made that same day or the day before.
Pecorino cheese, both soft and hard, is produced almost everywhere in Italy. Nearly every farmer who has sheep makes their own ricotta and sheep milk cheeses, from the soft, sliceable table pecorino to the hard gratable variety.
Here are a few more varieties of pecorino cheese from various locations in Italy.