Other than periodically proclaiming my righteous indignation over the misuse of the word parmesan, it’s been a while since I’ve written about Italian cheeses. Part of the reason for this is that I am hardly an expert on the subject, and I think I have already written most of what I know.
Fortunately, however, life is filled with learning opportunities – even about Italian cheese – so this blog is really a report of a recent conversation with the wonderful lady who manages the cheese department at Contoro’s Italian Market in Plymouth, Michigan. Cantoro’s is one of my favorite places to purchase all things Italian. (In the spirit of fair play, I should mention my other favorite is Galucci’s Italian Foods in Cleveland.)
Unlike Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese (which is produced by many cheese makers in the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy, but marketed using just one name), there are multiple brands of pecorino Romano cheese available today. Several decades ago, my father introduced me to Locatelli brand pecorino Romano cheese, and I have been buying and using it exclusively ever since. My children and my grandchildren expect to see it on the table whenever they’re served pasta with tomato sauce. With this pressure, I begin to get withdrawal symptoms whenever there are less than two chunks of it in the nearest refrigerator. Consequently, my visits to Cantoro’s or Galucci’s always involve purchasing several pounds of cheese, all graciously wrapped and vacuum packed in single pound chunks to preserve freshness for months.
During my most recent visit to Cantoro’s, while I was ordering more Locatelli cheese, the manager recommended I consider the Fulvi brand pecorino Romano cheese. She offered me a side-by-side tasting – Locatelli vs. Fulvi – and, incidentally, both at the same price.
The Locatelli was, of course, a familiar taste – a sudden burst of saltiness followed by the luscious flavors of the cheese, which become more pronounced as the saltiness dissipates. The Fulvi cheese produced almost the exact opposite experience. The initial sensation is the rich cheese flavor that persists as the level of saltiness steadily increases to its peak. The salty “explosion” occurs at the end, rather than the beginning – at the back of the palate instead of the front.
I liked both. Actually, I preferred the Fulvi, but the perceived guilt of abandoning my long-term friend was too great. Then the other proverbial shoe dropped! I was told, “Fulvi is the only pecorino Romano cheese still made in Lazio. Locatelli is made in Sardinia.”
That gave me the excuse I needed to bring the Fulvi home; and I am pleased to report that Grandma Karen, after comparing the two pecorino Romano cheeses side-by-side, agrees that while neither is arguably better than the other, each produces a distinctly different taste experience. Our personal cheese supply now includes both the Locatelli and Fulvi brands.
Finally (and changing the subject entirely), in my last blog, The Ten Commandments of Italian Cooking, I agreed with the quoted author’s second commandment: “Flat-leaf parsley, rosemary, sage and basil are invariably used fresh, but oregano is always used dried.” This prompted several readers to ask: Should I stop growing fresh oregano?
The unequivocal answer, of course, is no! Fresh oregano is a wonderful herb and adds incredible flavor to many dishes. At the same time, drying oregano concentrates the flavors probably more than any other herb I can think of. For me, this means dried and fresh oregano are really not substitutes for each other. They each have equally important uses in the kitchen. I consider them to be two different herbs.
For example, my recipe for Frittata with Fresh Herbs calls for fresh oregano. Dry oregano would overpower the other herbs. My Italian Tomato Sauce, on the other hand, calls for dried oregano. I’ve tried using fresh, but it just doesn’t work. As a further example, I offer a new recipe that I’m calling Baked Trout with Fresh Herbs. It’s a very easy method for preparing almost any fish fillet, and also makes perfect use of the abundant fresh herbs available this time of year (at least in Michigan). Oh, and I do not recommend substituting dried oregano for fresh in this one either, but I do hope you’ll try it sometime soon.