Monday, February 26, 2007

Pecorino

The word pecora means sheep in Italian, and all over Italy, sheep’s milk cheeses bear the name pecorino, usually followed by some term of geographic provenance.

Pecorino Romano is perhaps the best known, but other varieties also hold substantial interest, especially Pecorino Sardo, the hard, salty version from the island of Sardegna.

Romano is made in Lazio (the Eternal City’s province) from November through June. It’s semi-hard and grainy, with about 36% fat content. It tends to be oily, and sharp to the point of piquancy, and a bit saltier than Parmigiano. It also has an aroma that is, well, sheepish, by which I don’t mean to say it’s retiring.

(Two related styles of Romano, Caprino and Vacchino, are made out of goat’s milk and cow’s milk, respectively. They can be difficult to find in the United States, but are worth searching for.)

Romano makes a good substitute for Parmigiano, especially in dishes that call for a more assertive presence. Like Parmigiano, Pecorino Romano is widely used as a grating cheese. One Roman way of serving it is grated over spinach that’s been sautéed in garlic and olive oil. It also goes well with eggs and shaved thinly over a salad.

Pecorino Sardo (also known as Fiore Sardo) is a cousin, just a bit harder and sharper than the mainland style. Like the island itself, it is earthy and rustic, with a definite salty bite.

Still other great pecorini come from Tuscany. There’s a fair bit of diversity among Pecorino Toscano makers, who get creative with lengths and techniques of ripening periods, to nice effect.

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