A Bit of History
Romano is a cheese that has been mentioned extensively throughout history. Columella, who wrote De Re Rustica during the first century (one of the most important Roman agricultural treatises) mentions in detail Romano cheese and how it was made. Apparently at that time it was already an ancient cheese.
Romano doesn't really refer to Rome the city, but to the Romans, who were already making this cheese 2000 years ago. It was produced in Latium (the region around Rome) up until 1884, when, due to the prohibition issued by the city council against salting the cheese inside their shops in Rome, many producers moved to the island of Sardinia. Also, as the population in the north of Italy increased, the cheese makers couldn't meet this demand with their existing flocks around Rome and since not all pastures give the proper milk, they searched elsewhere for pastures that would work, finding them in southern Tuscany (Marema) and in Sardinia. Pecorino Romano isn't simply made from sheep's milk, but from the milk of sheep that have grazed pastures with specific combinations of grasses that impart specific flavors to their milk.
Today Sardinia is the center where the Consorzio per la Tutela del Formaggio Pecorino Romano, the organization that oversees the production of Pecorino Romano, has its offices.
A Salty Cheese:
Romano cheese has traditionally been heavily salted. The high salt is what preserves the cheese in the warm Mediterranean climate of central and southern Italy. Before refrigeration there were only two options to keep cheese from going bad:
- Eating the cheese fresh before it went bad.
- Heavily salting the cheese to keep bacteria and molds from developing.
This is most likely why the cheese has not been considered a table cheese but is largely used in cooking. The high salt of the cheese was used in place of salt additions for the food. Even today we find Romano used as a grating cheese added to other foods.
A Piquant Cheese:
Romano is also known to be a "spicy" cheese and at times I even think it is a bit "hot" from longer aging giving a very strong peppery aspect to the cheese even when red and black peppers are not added to it. This "piquant" character is not only a flavor but it is also an aroma that can be more than strong at times. If you have ever been in an Italian market either here or in Italy and near the aged Provolone you might know this aroma.
Where does this flavor come from? Traditionally when made from sheep's milk, a special rennet paste was used. This was made by feeding milk to the lamb just before slaughter. When the stomach is removed and tied off, the natural rennet in the stomach will coagulate the milk. In addition, the lambs endocrine system would secrete an enzyme known as Lipase into the digestive tract and to the stomach. Lipase is an enzyme that works to break down fat (lypolysis) and provides the strong flavors of this cheese. Using the paste from this stomach would introduce the enzymes to the milk during cheese making.
Using Lipase Today:
Rennet paste is still used today for traditional cheese making in Italy. However, this rennet paste is not allowed to be used here in America due to our regulations, and in large scale production in Italy its use is not practical for most cheese makers.
However, lipase can be obtained as a freeze dried powder today and meets the regulation standards here in America. It is extracted from the endocrine system of a calf for the "mild" version and from the goat for the "strong" version. It should, however, be re-hydrated in water before use but I find that a small amount of milk works just as well.