Customers come in all the time looking for “Pecorino.” Typically they have a recipe in hand, either on paper or on their phones. They’re usually hunting around in the cow’s milk section, near the goudas and swisses.
Most of the time, my response is, “what kind of Pecorino are you looking for?”
This is when people get that deer-in-the-headlights look on their faces, totally perplexed, and frantically look the recipe over for more information.
Yes, it might be a little snarky of me. But it’s also when the educator in me takes over.
Why? Because pecorino means “sheep’s milk cheese” in Italian. Just like chevre means goat in French—as in the animal and the family of cheeses made from its milk. (The Italian word for sheep is pecora.)
So when you are asking for “Pecorino,” you’re really just asking for cheese made from sheep’s milk.
Call me pedantic, but I can’t help myself.
As it happens 99.9 percent of the time, customers are looking for Pecorino Romano, a sheep’s milk cheese that originates from the area surrounding Rome. It’s a hard, salty cheese—what you would call a “grating-style cheese.” It’s widely used in the US as an addition to recipes like pastas and salads.
But there are so many other Pecorinos!
In our cheese shop, we also have Pecorino Sardo, another hard, salty sheep’s cheese from Sardinia. We also carry Pecorino Fresco Toscano, which is a soft, white Pecorino from Tuscany that is aged for around 30 days.
(In comparison, the Pecorino Sardo we carry is aged for four to 12 months, although there’s also a young variety that is aged for 20 to 60 days, which would be more similar to the Pecorino Fresco. Pecorino Romano will be aged for at least five months.)
And then there are the Pecorinos that don’t have “Pecorino” in the name. Those include all of your traditional Spanish Manchegos, delicacies like Ossau Iraty, l’Ulivo, and La Tenerina, the bloomy-rinded Cana de Oveja, and a whole line of Papillon brand cheeses, such as the Pérail, Rondin, and Margalet.
AND THEN, if you want to get really technical with me, there are even sheep’s milk blue cheeses—most notably Roquefort.
As a cheesemonger, the fun part about educating customers about the meaning of Pecorino or chevre or Swiss—at least the customers who are open to learning more, not the ones who snap at you because you inadvertently made them feel dumb—is that there really are so many types of cheeses to learn about. Teaching people about cheese is a way to have broader conversations about culture, history, and language—the things that unite us in our own groups and enlighten us about other groups of people.
Many customers don’t realize our shop organizes the cheeses in our case by type of milk, then by family of cheese, country of origin, and so forth. A lot of people also come in looking for the specific cheese the recipe calls for, or they don’t know much about cheese and are a bit afraid to branch out. When you realize that there are more possibilities at your fingertips, you can start to try new things, find new favorites, and also discover what you really don’t like. This way you learn more about yourself at the same time as you learn something new about food and the world around you.
So the next time you’re cooking with Pecorino, don’t just go for the Romano. Try the Sardo, or even the Fresco. And maybe the next time you set up a cheese tray for a party, you can incorporate a lovely sheep’s milk cheese like Ossau Iraty (one of my all-time favorites) or Idiazabal (a smoked Manchego) into the basic brie-blue-hard combo.