I should start this article by dispelling a myth: Pecorino is not the Italian word for “grating cheese.” The root of the word, “pecora,” is Italian for “sheep.” Therefore, “Pecorino” implies a cheese of Italian heritage that is made with sheep’s milk. The most famed pecorino is Pecorino Romano, and because the principal purpose of Pecorino Romano is grating, many people associate the word “pecorino” with grating. Unfortunately, those people have alienated themselves from Italy’s premier family of table cheeses.
Aside from Pecorino Romano, all of Italy’s most famous cheeses are made from cow’s milk: Parmigiano Reggiano, Fontina, Gorgonzola, Taleggio, to name a few. But from Emilio-Romagna south to Sicily, sheep milk is the dominant milk for cheese production, and these regions are regarded as some of the best in the world for sheep milk cheese. Today, however, we will focus on the eastern shore, Le Marche, which gives us one of the true gems of Italian cuisine: Pecorino Foja de Noce.
Le Marche has sprawling, verdant pastures and cavernous mountains. And because of its location along the Mediterranean, it receives sufficient sunlight to maintain vibrant plant life. The producers of Foja de Noce employ all facets of Le Marche to create this superb cheese. The fresh curds are wrapped in walnut leaves grown near the town of Montefeltro, and then aged in the mountain’s caves for six months. Wrapping the cheese in walnut leaves serves two critical purposes. Primarily, it imparts a nutty, earthy undertone to the flavor. It also prevents air from swiftly brushing over the rind, keeping it moist despite its half-year maturation. The high humidity of the caves aids the walnut leaves in maintaining a moist texture. This is crucial. Because the cheese does not dry out, the lactose in the milk continues to survive as a liquid, and therefore instills a slight sweetness and the delightful tang of lactic acid. The result is a cheese that accurately and proudly represents its homeland.
Because of its texture and full-yet-yielding flavor, Foja de Noce meshes well with many other flavors. It is commonly eaten only with honey, truffle oil or aged balsamic. A more decadent option is to shave it on top of salads or to coarsely chunk into a pasta sauce.