I think we have established that cheese-making in an ancient art. We don’t really know how long cheese has been eaten for-it doesn’t leave a great fossil record-but let’s suffice it to say, it’s been a while.
Take Pecorino, for instance, the beloved Italian ewe (sheep’s) milk cheese. It has been around for at least 2000 years in one shape or form or another. Roman records indicated that it was actually part of a soldier’s rations. It kept well in the heat, and provided the much needed fat, protein and salt on the road-kind of a little sheepy energy snack, Roman-Style.
I’m extremely fond of a Pecorino, and have reviewed several of them here (for the record, Pecorino isn’t a protected name, it’s the name of a family of cheeses, hard cheeses made from sheep’s milk- in fact, the word derives from pecora meaning sheep.)
And I don’t know if you have ever checked out a sheep udder, (perhaps a new hobby?) but those things are tiny. These poor little sheep really have to work to produce enough milk to make cheese, especially when compared to a cow. I just feel that sheep cheese is so much more precious than cow cheese. Hence, whenever I see a new iteration of pecorino, I must try it-I am compelled.
Which brings me to today’s cheese, discovered on sale at a local cheese shop, Pecorino Bigio. Now, don’t be alarmed when you see cheese on sale. Often-as with cheeses like brie and camembert-it’s a good thing. It means that the cheese is just right for eating-but I suppose even cheese can get too old and tired (hard to believe) so I was taking a risk picking this one up (50% of.) But I had never seen or tasted it before, and I found it’s aspect compelling-grey and zombie like.
Bigio means “grey and ashy” in Tuscany. Hence, this one of those weird looking grey ash cheeses. Really, this is an old and traditional cheese making process, don’t be alarmed. After five months of maturation, this Pecorino continues to ripen at least 2-3 weeks after being covered with a layer of burnt oak wood ashes. These ashes were previously used to heat the ovens to bake bread (ok, I found one web reference that said this, I find this a little dubious, although romantic, so I’m keeping it.) The fact is, cheese has been covered with ash for a long time, it keeps the bugs out and helps preserve the cheese. The ashes prevent the further formation of mould on the rind and accelerated the process of maturation. The ashes also dessicate the cheese and leave it sweeter and tastier.
I suspect that this Pecorino Bigio is a relatively new version of a traditional cheese. This is not a traditional name, but more of a trademarked name, but it’s using an old technique, so I’m cool with that. It’s made by the Il Forteto Cooperative in the Tuscan town of Mugello.
According to web sources, Il Forteto is an agricultural cooperative founded in only 1977. It was established by a group of 16 young students with the assistance of their professors. Their goal was to help the more unfortunate, including handicapped children, by raising money through agricultural products and sales. Wow! They started off by growing and selling agricultural products at their local markets, and today Il Forteto has grown to 96 members as well as a staff of 30 employees. Their products (including this cheese and several others) are shipped all over the world.
The Il Forteto Foundation was created in 1998 to officially support their social commitment to supporting the less fortunate. Apparently, all of the original founding members are still around and still play an active role in its management today. And as one who has spent time on a commune or cooperative living situation, let me tell you, that’s kind of a miracle all on its own.
I’m already feeling warmly towards this cheese. It’s made from sheep’s milk, and it’s politically correct. Alas, this is a pasteurized sheep’s milk cheese, but I shall attempt to overlook this.
My wedge of Pecorino Bigio was quite hard and dessicated. The ash has done an excellent job of removing any hint of moisture from this cheese. It really is ashy-it’s not just for looks, the ash comes off on my hands-I wouldn’t eat that part. The cheese has a faint smell-it’s pretty tame-it’s pretty desiccated, did I mention that? Actually, I couldn’t cut this cheese (insert snicker here) it’s by far, the hardest cheese I have encountered, I just kind of chipped away at it and it crumbled slightly. It’s hard to tell if it’s supposed to be that way, or if, in fact, the reason this cheese was on sale is it’s just too old. I think this one needs to be grated.
Here goes: Mmmm. It’s a sweet and chewy cheese, salty, sheepy, inviting. It’s very tame and friendly, it’s a warm round mouth feel that invited you to chew, which is kind of a shame as I can’t see really serving this as anything but grated. It’s quite dry, but once you start to chew it gives up it’s flavour. I can imagine that this one could live quite happily in a Roman soldiers bag for a couple of months or so, it’s really just inert and benign, yet yummy. This one’s a bit of a mystery to me, it’s got a nice taste, but I can’t figure out how one would deliver it to a cheese taster, perhaps next time I will stick to the full price version.