No matter how many times we tell ourselves we fall in love with Tuscany for its art, culture, history and heart-wrenchingly beautiful scenery, if we’re honest, it is all that, of course, but a lot of it is our enduring passion for the food! Some of the most pleasurable experiences of my career have been sharing the incredible local food and wine with my clients for the first time.
In its simplest form, by food, I’m talking about cheese! Our food and wine tours take clients to beautiful Pienza where there are still a handful of artisan cheesemakers using centuries-old methods to produce the prized Pecorino di Pienza.
Happy Sheep, Happy Cheese
Pecorino is made from sheep’s milk and, as is the secret behind so much of Tuscany’s abundant spoils, it takes a good dose of “Mama (Nature) knows best” in order to create the perfect conditions to produce a premium product. Just how good the lush, nutrient-rich pastures on which the happy sheep graze are has a direct effect – not just on the quantity, but also on the flavour and quality of the cheese that’s produced from their milk.
Visit the Source
The best thing about running such small group tours is that our guides know and love the area so well. We’re able to access some of the smaller, off-the-beaten-track, organic cheesemakers who still produce their Pecorino using methods dating back centuries, to Roman times. It’s such an interesting process to observe and it makes you appreciate the final product even more when you understand just how much work goes into it.
While there are a number of basic steps that must be carried out, authentic Pecorino di Pienza is much, much more than simply a sum of ingredients and a scientific process. For the cheese makers, it’s their passion and life’s work and a little bit of heart and soul goes into every batch.
Basic Steps of Pecorino Toscano
- Sheep’s milk is gradually heated to 70°F
- Rennet is added to the milk, which causes it to curdle
- Milk is reheated to 40°F before adding salt and additional milk
- The curds separate from whey and then are shaped and excess liquid removed
- Once the majority of the liquid is removed, it is shaped into the familiar wheel
- First aging is for 21 days at 50°F before cellaring for a minimum of 4 months and up to 12 months at 57°F
The best Tuscan Pecorino is certified ‘DOP’ – Denominazione d’Origine Protetta – which is a standard only awarded to genuine regional products.
The Taste of Tuscany
Of all the cheeses produced in Tuscany, Pecorino is probably the most iconic. When made using the traditional methods, it has a distinctive salty taste and a dry, granular texture from the extended aging process, during which it is dry-salted a number of times.
The sharp, smoky flavour marries so beautifully with the cuisine and it’s a perfect accompaniment to breads, wines and pasta sauces. My tip is to try it cubed and dipped in some local honey and you’ll never look back.
My own personal love affair with cheese (in fact we’re childhood sweethearts) is the reason Pienza is one of my favourite places on our Tuscan itineraries. I’d love to share it with you…