Chef Giuseppe Villani welcomed us to the kitchen at Villa Fattoria Granducale Alberese in Parco Alberese in Tuscany. The chef and his helpers had been preparing for our cooking class featuring Pecorino Toscano cheese and my colleagues and I on the Pecorino Experience press trip, enticed by the aromas wafting through the door, were anxious to get started.
We were in Tuscany to learn about the region’s iconic cheese, Pecorino Toscano. The name pecorino comes from the Italian word for sheep, pecora. Flocks of sheep graze everywhere on the hillsides in Tuscany and their milk is used to produce a variety of cheeses from fresh ricotta to aged Pecorino Toscano PDO. Different breeds of sheep are raised, and they produce enough milk to supply 17 caseifici (cheesemaking establishments) in the region. Sheeps’ milk cheeses range in flavor from mild and milky when fresh, to nutty and tangy when aged.
The class began with–what else–a cheese tasting. We tried several varieties of Pecorino Toscano PDO including a fresh variety, aged between 45 to 60 days which was soft and pale yellow in color. The flavor was sweet and rich, and it had a creamy texture. A second variety had been brushed with olive oil before aging which made it slightly drier and more the flavor more concentrated, while the third variety was aged more than 120 days which gave it a flavor of nuts, and dried fruits and a crumbly texture. They all were good for eating with fruits and nuts, honey or jam. The chef told us he uses all three types for cooking.
The first dish he demonstrated was very simple. He spread coarsely grated Pecorino Toscano – a mix of different varieties – in a baking dish to which he added a generous splash of white wine. After baking, when the cheese was bubbling and melted, he arranged a few anchovies on top (he suggested topping it with prosciutto or black truffles as an alternative). He spooned the bubbling cheese over thin slices of toasted bread and served it with dry white wine. You can be sure I will be duplicating this soon. It’s a great dish for lunch or brunch or to serve as a first course.
Next came individual flans with cheese and vegetables, followed by miniature tartlets filled with cheese and guanciale, an Italian version of quiche Lorraine. Then one of the chef’s assistants showed us how to make pici, thick handmade pasta strands. The chef sauced the pasta with “cacio e pepe”, pecorino Toscano cheese and black pepper. He asked me to do some of the pasta tossing, which was a challenge for me given the size of that pan! The pasta was terrific, cheesy, creamy, and peppery.
Meanwhile, the assistants were preparing our dessert, known as fiadoni. They filled tender pastry rounds with a blend of sugar, lemon, eggs and pecorino Toscano before baking them. The little turnovers were irresistible warm, even though I had thought I couldn’t eat another bite.
Since we have been back home, I have been experimenting with other ways to use Pecorino Toscano PDO. Grilled open-faced sandwiches, tossed with green beans and butter, and in a salad have all been big hits. Of course, it is most enjoyable on its own, with a good glass of Tuscan wine.