Pecorino Romano, a version originally hailing from the Lazio region near Rome (hence the name “Romano”), is the cheese that defines the Italian kitchen. It’s lighter, drier and saltier than other pecorino varieties, and bonds so many Italian dishes such as cacio e pepe, pasta carbonara and bucatini all’amatriciana (a typical Roman dish made of pasta, pig’s cheek and tomatoes). It’s seasoned for up to two years and is delicious with a dab of honey and a glass of wine. And it has been around Italy for 2,000 years.
During the Roman Republic (508-27 BCE), shepherds needed to do something with their excess sheep’s milk and so they made what is Pecorino Romano. The Roman Empire’s renowned agricultural writer, Lucio Moderato Columella, wrote about what appeared to be Pecorino Romano in 50 CE in De Re Rustica. Turns out, Pecorino Romano was an ideal food for Roman armies as it had a lifespan longer than many soldiers. In the Middle Ages, people started adding salt to Pecorino Romano and discovered that it helped preserve the cheese. Soon, it spread beyond the Italian peninsula.
Pecorino Romano has survived the fall of the Roman Empire, earthquakes and fascism.
“Pecorino Romano is like a Roman soldier,” said Rome-based food writer Rachel Alice Roddy. “It’s meant to be a working cheese.”
Despite its name, Pecorino Romano is sold on a large scale as it is used primarily in the home kitchen. This mass-produced version, affordable and readily available in supermarkets across Italy, not only survived Covid, it thrived. During Italy’s lockdowns, families stocked up on it. In fact, sales went up during Covid, going from 26,940 tons sold in 2019 to 34,280 last year.
Artisanal pecorinos, meanwhile, nearly became another Covid victim when restaurants and public markets closed, and producers wondered what they’d do with factories full of cheese going bad fast. And so, they resorted to selling it door to door. They grew their own corn to combat the growing cost of sheep feed. And they buried it in caves to preserve it for a later date.
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