The origins of Pecorino Romano date back to Ancient Rome. Today it’s one Italy’s top 5 most exported dairy products worldwide. We examined samples of rounds aged over 8 months, produced in the Lazio and Sardinia regions, seat of the Consortium.
Pecorino Romano is native to the rural area surrounding Rome where it was born two-thousand years ago for the eating pleasure of the patricians and the military rations of the legions. From the end of the 19th century, Pecorino Romano has also become the adoptive son of Sardinia. This is where the producer’s consortium is located in the city of Macomer, Nuoro province and where 95% of its production milk comes from. The rest of the milk for Pecorino Romano comes from Lazio and the province of Grosseto in Tuscany. There’s good reason for this. Sardinia is by definition a land of sheep rearing, with immense pasture lands, an established dairy tradition and pastoral culture ingrained in the locals’ DNA.
For years now, Pecorino Romano is one Italy’s top 5 most exported dairy products worldwide, the first among sheep’s milk cheeses with around 25,000 tonnes produced in 2014 by 36 farms under the DOP label, a third of which is exported to the US. Despite its history and market success – mostly abroad – Pecorino Romano is undergoing somewhat of a commercial decline. A number of historic Pecorino Romano manufacturershave had to shut down, and the production is decreasing. “Three years ago we suffered the blue tongue disease in our sheep, an emergency which was promptly solved by 2014” – explains Renato Illotto, president of the Pecorino Romano tutelage Consortium, “Unfortunately the climate issue we canìt solve. The increase in precipitation in the last years has caused a decrease in milk production, in peaks of 20%. The rain disturbs the free range life of the sheep”. In addition to this, the milk that remains is used to make Sardinian pecorino, some local cheese makers explain. Yet the demand for the ultra millenary cheese with the characteristic black coating on the rind seems to be growing. Like its price, also, which have virtually doubled compared to 54 years ago: €4,80-5 per kilo, in 2011 it jumped to €9-10/Kg. Considering how export has increased in value thanks to the weakened Euro to the Dollar, there is an added internal market demand.
The Pecorino Romano cheese tasting
Pecorino Romano is made with sheep’s milk, with a preference for the Sardinian breed, which has been soft-pasteurized (heated that is for 15 seconds at 55-68 degrees Celsius) a procedure which eliminates germs but leaves healthy curdling bacteria and original organoleptic nutrients intact. The DOP label includes two types of Pecorino Romano: table cheese, aged 5 months, and gratable cheese, aged a minimum of 8 months. This does not mean however that a more aged product is only suitable for being grated over a plate of pasta, to the contrary!
In the samples tasted during our degustation, the average aging ranged between 8 and 12 months, aside from a Pecorino Romano aged 15-16 months and one aged 18 months, we noticed differences according to production areas. The 4 Pecorino Romano made in Lazio are definitely more savory and faithful to this cheese’s identity, which is traditionally rustic and salty. The Pecorino Romano hailing from Sardinia on the other hand are on average sweeter and immediate in flavor, well-loved by more northern Italian palates and lovers of more mild flavors. After all the salting procedure in Pecorino Romano is at the discretion of the single producer: dry rub or in salt brine soak, ranging from 2 to 5 times. “Consumers want sweeter products with a less aggressive salt element” explains Renato Illotto. “In order to cater to our consumers’ palates we’re thinking of varying the offer and thus modifying the DOP regulation: a table version with less salt, and a saltier Pecorino Romano for export for those who prefer it”. More or less salty, Pecorino Romano will however always have to express its true peasant nature, with aromas that put the milk, pasture and elements of the herd, wool and characteristic rustic aroma at the center. This is the cheese’s identifying hallmark.
Prices shown are average retail. Save for the top ranked, the other farms/producers listed are in alphabetical order
1° place Giesse84 – Agri In
The first place winner is Pecorino Romano Deroma (the name of the owner). This is not a renowned product on the market. Created by a tandem of manufacturers located in Torrita Tiberina, in the Nazzano Tevere-Farfa natural reserve. Giesse84 – the only producer in the Rome province, labeled with the RM7 DOP detail – transforms exclusively local sheep’s milk hailing mostly from the surrounding “agro romano” and the Latina province, and transforms it in artisanal manner, from the initial curd cut to the 4 dry salting rubs. Agri In markets the cheese and distributes mostly in retail in small specialized shops, in the Tyrrhenian Coop circuit and in Italy.
The 9-month Deroma wins thanks to its genuinity and exuberance. It’s a classic Pecorino Romano as 100% Romans intend it: spicy, powerful and heady, with robust sapidity, full of flavor and aromatic notes. These characteristics evolve with the different aging margins and growth of secondary aromas. The color is straw-coloured yellow and possesses a granular and compact texture, and boasts small, scattered irregular air pockets and evident traces of tyrosine. The nose is complex and pervasive, with rich notes of fresh milk, vegetal and floral scents, nuances of slight toasted nuts, delicate reference to the clean animal and dried fruits. On the palate, the swagger of the salty element is immediately perceived, which does not however throw off the balance, rather elongates the flavor, nor does it cover the aromatic endowment announced by the nose and confirmed on the palate. The structure is tenacious, crumbly and slightly sablé, yet soluble. Good intensity, excellent persistence. Perfect eaten as is and grated over food.
Price per kilo: 16-20 Euro
Giesse84 – Agri In | Torrita Tiberina (RM) | via di Valle Carbone | tel. 0765 322273 | www.agriin.it
This is definitely an admirable Pecorino Romano, detail number CA197, also produced in an organic version. Only a small portion of production is distributed on the Italian market, 90% is for export.
The 18-month cheese produced here is a dark ivory color that tends to pale yellow, the texture is granular and crumbly dotted with irregular air pockets and vague traces of tyrosine. On the nose it reveals an evolved and complex aroma, rich with notes of cooked milk, spicy and toasted vegetal scents, with references to walnuts and hazelnuts, mushrooms, woodlands and clean animals. On the palate it is quite salty (thanks to the 4 salt rubs), unique for a Pecorino Romano made in Sardinia. The savory element is solitary and persistent, it tends to cover the aromatic baggage, yet it immediately expresses the ovine element in its entirety (herd, fleece, stable) and returns at the finish with retro nasal force. The close is slightly bitter. The mouthfeel is crumbly, granular and slightly adhesive which tends to dry out the mouth, but on the whole, it is soluble.
Price per kilo: 15-19 Euro
Argiolas Formaggi | Dolianova (CA) | s.p. 14, 3/5 | tel. 070 740293 – 070 741694 | www.argiolasformaggi.com
Brunelli, in business since 1938, detail number on the DOP label LT23, is a leading Pecorino Romano brand, and one of the few that produces it in the Lazio region. The manufacture is located in Aprilia, in the Latina province, but the legal offices and the aging facility are in the Rome hinterland (via Stazione Prima Porta 20, tel. 06 33610144). This is not a small production, to the contrary, this is a joint-stock corporation that sells its cheese in Italy, Europe, US, Canada and Japan, and that transforms milk of the Roman countryside as well as coming from Sardinia.
Despite its size and yield, Brunelli does things well: the salt rubs are done by hand, the aging process is longer in respect to the minimum required by the DOP regulation, the distribution is mostly for a niche market in the best shops and haute cuisine. Brunelli’s 12-13 month-old Pecorino Romano is the classic Roman-style pecorino: pungent, salty and odorous of the herd and the Roman countryside. Granular with a slight line of scattered air pockets and traces of tyrosine in the straw-yellow pulp, it recalls on the nose and palate saline notes and all the familiar aromatic elements of this cheese: yogurt, cooked milk, melted salted butter, heavy cream, caramel, nuts, the clean fleece of the sheep, light spices and memories of hay. Good sweet/savory balance, the mouthfeel is crumbly and sablé thanks to the tyrosine, rather soluble. Medium intensity and persistence.
Price per kilo: 21 Euro
Brunelli | Aprilia (LT) | via dei Giardini, 37 | tel. 06 92062025 | www.brunelli.it
I Buonatavola Sini
One of the best Pecorino Romano produced is the one made by the Fulvi family (DOP detail number VT8), produced in the northern Lazio area of Tuscia. This is a typical Pecorino Romano, made according to old school methods, hand-salted 4-5 times, either fresh or evolved, in both cases complex and immediate, and does its best to impress the nose: an emotional experience in and of itself.
The slice we tasted of the 15-16 month-old Sini is beautiful, golden colored, granular and vibrant, entirely dotted with a thick amount of air pockets and characterised by the classic “teardrop”. Its pervasive aromas of cooked milk and melted butter, flowers, pasture lands, honey, nuts. mushrooms and the damp forest floor, the wet fleece and all the elements of the stable yet maintaining a rustic gentleness. An incredible scent, a true gourmet experience. On the palate the cheese does not maintain the same height, intensity and complexity of the nose: it loses somewhat in aroma leaving an explosive salty and cheesy trail. The mouthfeel too can improve: slightly adhesive and dries out the mouth. We need to however consider that Pecorino Romano is commonly enjoyed grated over classic cucina romana dishes, from the famed pasta dishes to braised tripe, and that its main characteristic is its aroma. A definite must.
Price per kilo: 21 Euro
I Buonatavola Sini | Nepi (VT) | via Cassia, km 41 | tel. 0761 571052 | www.ibuonatavolasini.com
CAO – Coop. Allevatori Ovini
Cooperativa Allevatori ovini in Oristano, whose president Renato Illotto is also the president of the Pecorino Romano Tutelage Consortium, salts its rounds 3 or 4 times and brands them with the detail number OR104.
The 10 month-old cheese appears rather white with a relatively compact, uniform and moist structure streaked with minute air pockets. The rather closed nose, expresses delicate milky and cheesy notes. On the palate the cheese is perceived as simple and immediate, more sweet than savory, with undertones of cooked milk that blend with elements of nuts and the herd. The texture is crumbly and relatively soluble. The finish is a little bitter. This is definitely not very salty Pecorino Romano and therefore rather unusual, yet appreciated by those who prefer a milder product.
Price per kilo: 15-16 Euro
CAO – Coop. Allevatori Ovini | Oristano | loc. Perda Lada fraz. Fenosu | tel. 0783 301831 – 0783 301514 | www.caoformaggi.it
Cen.tra.l., which stands for Centro Trasformazione Latte, (milk transformation center) is a small private business owning the detail label number CA105 that holds a rich record of achievements and awards for its cheeses.
Cen.tra.l.’s 8 month-old, obtained with 4 hand-dry rub cycles, is a classic Pecorino Romano made in Sardinia. Mild saltiness and on the whole balanced as far as aroma and flavor, and in terms of intensity and persistence. The color is intense ivory veering to yellow, the structure is rather compact, uniform and slightly grainy, with only a slight trace of air pockets in the pulp, as well as a small hairline crack, also. The nose is small, where classic sheep notes can be slightly perceived, as well as dairy scents (butter, yogurt and warmed milk), reminders of nuts and mushrooms. On the palate the savory element discreetly blends with the handsome sweetness and a hint of bitterness in the finish which is reminiscent of “lupino” a brined salty flat, yellow legume (a popular snack in Rome 50some years ago). In addition to the nose elements this cheese presents a slight spiced nuance and a persistent animal aftertaste. The mouthfeel is slightly crumbly and sufficiently soluble.
Price per kilo: 15-17 Euro
Cen.tra.l. | Serrenti (VS) | s.s. 131, km 40,250 | tel. 070 9371363 | www.central.it
Casearia Podda belongs to the Granarolo group, which in 2012 purchased Ferruccio Podda’s business, detail number CA151, active for over 60 years in the cheesemaking craft and winner of several awards. For the Granarolo food conglomerate based in Bologna, Podda produces a pleasant and balanced Pecorino Romano. A rather typical cheese, yet – thanks to the 4 salt rubs – saltier than expected from a Sardinian product.
Intense ivory-coloured, compact and moist with evident air pockets, visible tyrosine and the distinctive teardrop when carved open, the Podda/Granarolo 8 month-old Pecorino Romano expresses a hint of salt on the nose paired with fresh milky, buttery notes, added with hints of animal and spices. On the palate the cheese is quite savory, intense and spicy. The dominant animal elements (wool, hide, clean stable) overpower the milky, vegetal and fruity notes. In addition to these are scents of humid forest floor and cellar. The texture is confirmed in the mouth: slightly moist and soft, almost creamy and pleasantly chewable.
Price per kilo: 14-17 Euro
The Pinna brothers’ dairy production, born in 1928, labeled with the DOP detail SS169, is the consortium’s largest Pecorino Romano producer. Yet its Pecorino Romano was one of the most applauded in our panel, certainly the best among the ones tasted made in Sardinia.
The 10 month-old appears rather fresh, with an ivory coloured, compact, uniform and moist pulp which is just slightly crumbly and showing only a trace of air pockets and tyrosine. The scent is rather delicate and gentle, with prevailing notes of fresh cold milk, butter, yogurt, unripe savory fruit, vague nuts and spice accents. But it is on the palate that this Pecorino Romano best expresses itself. The potent savory push and an underlying rustic sweetness are matched by a vast and complex aromatic endowment. The same fresh milky notes found in the nose, added with animal, spice and fruity notes. The mouthfeel is crumbly, dry and slightly sandy, yet fatty and soluble. The aftertaste is genuine and precise typical of sheep’s milk.
Price per kilo: 16-19 Euro
F.lli Pinna | Thiesi (SS) | Via F.lli Chighine,9 | s.s. SS131bis 07047 | tel. 079 886009 | www.pinnaspa.it
Latteria Sociale Sa Costera
Sa Costera is a large social cooperative (DOP detail number SS132) born in 1990. It collects the milk of the 560 co-founders and transforms it in Pecorino Romano, the majority of which is exported to the United States.
The 12 month-old Sa Costera, obtained with 2 salt rubs, is an excellent Sardinian Pecorino Romano. The salt is not too aggressive, on the whole a delicate and harmonious cheese. The pulp is compact and uniform, colour veering between ivory and yellow. With scattered and uneven small air pockets and traces of tyrosine, this cheese owns a pleasant and delicate scent in which gentle elements of this particular cheese’s character: fresh milky, floral and herbaceous notes, toasted hazelnuts, clean sheep’s fleece. On the palate the cheese is well-rounded and balanced: even degree of saltiness, conformation of the nose, freshness and clean, crisp flavors, good intensity and persistence. The structure is crumbly and granular with a good balance between dry/moist, sufficiently soluble. Good grated, excellent eaten as is.
Price per kilo: 14-17 Euro
Latteria Sociale Sa Costera | Anela (SS) | reg. Torra Ischizzarolu | tel. 079 791181 | www.coopsacostera.it
Coop. Unione Pastori Nurri
The Unione Pastori di Nurri, detail number NU134 (not to be confused with Unione Pastori di Sarule, in the same Nuoro province), is a cooperative that gathers together 800 associates. It produces Pecorino Romano obtained with 3 salt rubs even in its organic version, and which is distributed mostly in the haute cuisine world and mostly exported to North America.
Nurri’s 11 month-aged Pecorino Romano is an excellent cheese. Very typical with an impetuous saltiness that however does not cover the persuasive aromatic baggage and rustic sweetness of sheep’s milk. The aged pulp is rather crumbly, straw-yellow veering towards amber. Minute air pockets and slightly dotted with crystals of tyrosine, this cheese expresses vivacious milky, buttery and creamy tones, hints of pastureland and wet hay, vague floral and animal notes, as well as nutty (pine nut and almond) aromas. The fresh and penetrating nose invites the palate in a savory dance that does not overpower the aromatic sensation. The structure is crumbly, granular and slightly fatty, which is highly soluble. The mouthfeel is balanced, fresh and clean, with a persistent floral, sheepy and herbaceous aftertaste. This Pecorino Romano beckons dishes typical of cucina romanain particular fresh fava beans, the local countryside snack of springtime.
Price per kilo: 17-20 Euro
Coop. Unione Pastori Nurri | Nurri (NU) | zona industriale loc. Taccu | tel. 0782 849060 – 0782 849309 | www.unionepastorinurri.com
by Mara Nocilla
translated by Eleonora Baldwin