We really love the delicious cheeses made from sheep’s milk here in Tuscany.
Any cheese made from sheep’s milk is called pecorino, coming from the Italian word for sheep, pecora. Pecorino cheese has been made in Italy for thousands of years, appearing in written accounts from participants at the banquet tables of the Roman Emperors and later exported outside Italy, gaining fame around the world.
Although pecorino is produced all over Italy, there are five main pecorino regions: Sardegna, Sicily, Basilicata, Calabria and of course Tuscany. Tuscan sheep farming can trace its roots back to Etruscan times, as the rolling hills and mixed wooded and open grassy meadows are the perfect environments for grazing sheep. In the mezzadria, sharecropping system, which remained in place until the 1950’s in Tuscany, the job of the shepherd was often assigned to an adolescent in the family who skipped school to follow the herd as it grazed.
Traditional Tuscan methods for making pecorino have been passed down through the generations and there is even a consortium created to govern Pecorino Toscano PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) with designated production areas and rules to follow to certify a specific cheese as either Fresh or Aged Pecorino Toscano. You can find great recipes and more information on the English version of the consortium website. Keep reading for a list of some of the delicious types of pecorino cheese you might get to taste on a tour with us, for instance during the Chianti & Cheese Tour, or in the fantastic Central Market in Florence visiting the various vendors.
Marzolino – This is a fresh cheese traditionally produced in the springtime when the sheep are grazing on the lush, green grass, hence the name, which translates to “little March”. The fresh sheep’s milk is often transformed with vegetable rennet, extracted from a plant that is related to artichokes, and it is ready to be eaten in just five days.
Fresh Pecorino – Pecorino fresco forms often weigh around 2kg (a little less than 1 pound) and have a thin, very light yellow rind with an interior texture that is smooth and soft. The flavour is mild and buttery and the rounds are aged between 20 and 60 days.
Partially Aged Pecorino – Although not officially recognized in the PDO regulations, many producers sell cheeses while they are partially aged, in Italian semi stagionato. The forms can be both small and large. The way it is aged and the length of time depends on the individual producer and the size of the round, but these cheeses are usually aged for two to four months before consumption.
Aged Pecorino – For Pecorino to age well, it usually needs to be a larger form because smaller forms tend to dry out too easily. To be considered pecorino stagionato the cheese must age for 120 days (4 months) before being sold for consumption and can be aged for up to a year or even more depending on the producer. The ageing produces a harder a slightly drier consistency with a strong, tangy flavour and yellow colour. In the past and even today, especially other regions, the aged pecorino is grated on pasta dishes much like Parmesan cheese.
Ricotta – After making cheese, the whey (liquid) that is leftover can then be used to make ricotta. Ricotta means “recooked” in Italian, and in fact, the whey is heated to a very high temperature, often in a special copper cauldron, until the ricotta floats to the surface. The ricotta curds are skimmed off the top and then drained.
Pecorino flavourings – Some additional ingredients that some producers add to their sheep cheeses for flavouring include: saffron, walnuts, grape must (producing “drunk cheese!”), white and black truffles, as well as edible moulds of different kinds. Pecorino is great drizzled with Tuscan honey, fig and other jams and jellies, and mustards.
See this short video that we did at Corzano & Paterno, a fantastic cheesemaker that we visit during some of our wine tours from Florence.