Italy produces a boggling array of pecorino cheeses, writes Will Studd, and they're (almost) always delicious.
Italy produces more types of pure ewe's milk cheese than any other country. Collectively known as pecorino, after the Italian word pecora, meaning sheep, these come in an incredible variety of shapes, sizes and styles. The origins of this fascinating cheese family predates cow's milk cheese in Italy by hundreds of years. Many examples are still handmade on a regional scale and rarely leave the country.
Ewe's milk is rich in solids and a litre produces almost twice as much cheese as a litre of cow's milk. Indigenous Italian breeds of sheep, however, produce only a small quantity of milk for just a few months of the year. Consequently, many types of pecorino are made only in spring and early summer, and the type of rennet used to coagulate the milk is crucial in determining the character of the cheese.
The oldest, hardest and most brittle types of pecorino are found south of Rome, particularly in Sicily, known in ancient Greece for its "grating" cheese, where it was added to wine during feasting. Typically made from raw ewe's milk coagulated with lamb's rennet, these cheeses have a firm, dry texture and become increasingly "sheepy" on the nose as they age. Their sharp "hot" flavours are traditionally enhanced with dried chilli or whole black peppercorns.
The pecorino found in the cooler regions of central and northern Italy, notably Tuscany and Umbria, date back to Roman times. Once known simply as cacio (meaning cheese), they are now made almost entirely from pasteurised ewe's milk coagulated with calf rennet. This produces a cheese with a flakier, more moist texture and less aggressive taste than those in the south. A favourite is Cacio di Bosco, which is subtly flavoured with flecks of truffle, making it a guaranteed crowd-pleaser when grated over homemade pasta.
Abruzzo in central Italy is home to the world's most unique pecorino, Pecorino di Farindola, which is coagulated with pig's rennet. Shepherd's cheeses from this remote mountain region date back thousands of years and were made during the annual summer sheep migration from Puglia along the Tratturo Magno (the great track) to the rich pastures of the high plateau. The track is no longer used and many cheeses have disappeared. Pecorino di Farindola is an exception.
It is still made the old-fashioned way, by women only, using raw ewe's milk, and is the only cheese in Europe to use pig's rennet, which adds a distinct yellow tinge and sweet nutty tang to the mature cheese.
By far the largest producer of ewe's milk in Italy is Sardinia. Home to more than 3.5 million sheep, the island's oldest cheese is Fiore Sardo (also known as Pecorino Sardo), which dates back to the Bronze Age. Most exports are produced by industrial dairies, but it's still possible to find rich handmade cheeses that have been lightly smoked in shepherd's huts. Fiore Sardo can be coagulated using either kid's or lamb's rennet, but the locals suspect its name (meaning Sardinian flower) is linked to the use of thistle flowers in place of rennet, a tradition still practised in Portugal and parts of Spain.
Sardinia is also home to the most well known of Italian ewe's milk cheeses, Pecorino Romano. It's the grandfather of Parmigiano-Reggiano and, as its name suggests, was originally made just outside Rome, in the countryside of Latium. Now almost all cheese bearing the name is made in Sardinia. Easily recognisable by the imprint of a sheep's head on its rind, it weighs in at a hefty 25 to 35 kilos and is produced from raw ewe's milk coagulated with lamb rennet. Unlike its cousins, the rind is dry-salted, which adds a salty mineral tang to its flavour. Ready for grating after eight months, the intense flavours and moist, compact, granular texture of Pecorino Romano make it a wonderful alternative to Parmigiano-Reggiano. And, of course, it's essential for an authentic carbonara or Amatriciana sauce.
Sardinia's most notorious pecorino is casu marzu or "rotten cheese". This soft creamy cheese is ripened with cheese-fly maggots. Confronting the wriggling creatures on the cheese is not for the squeamish. I was persuaded to try some while visiting a farm dairy and still remember the extremely tangy, aromatic hot finish lingering painfully on the back of my palate. This was relieved only with copious amounts of rough red wine provided by my smiling hosts. Never again.
Related link: our favourite pasta recipes.