Pecorino di Fossa is a favorite cheese of Italian chefs because of its unique and assertive flavor, a result of an equally unique aging process steeped in local tradition.

This special, loaf-shaped sheep’s milk cheese originates in Emilia Romagna, where it has historically been made in the hills surrounding Sogliano al Rubicone, an area that includes the neighboring hills in Marche, just over the regional border. In both regions the cheese is traditionally grated over pasta, or enjoyed as a table cheese with local honey, fruit, and cured meats. Golden in color and rich in mouthfeel and flavor, it is a terrific partner for the local truffles that are unearthed during the same time of year.

Fosse are subterranean holes that occur naturally in the landscape of this area, and they are the source of Pecorino di Fossa’s complex flavor and aroma. Traditionally, these cheeses are made in early August, in order to be ready for their hibernation underground by August 16th, when the fosse are ceremonially uncovered. Skilled artisans painstakingly prepare the fosse by burning straw inside the holes to reduce the humidity. The holes are then carefully lined with more straw. The weeks-old cheeses, still in their infancy and wrapped in protective cloth sacks, are laid on specially constructed wooden circles supported by reeds that keep them a specific height from the straw lining. More reeds go on top, and then the holes are filled in with sand, pebbles, and cement to mark their location.

For the next 3 months or so, the cheeses age in their underground nests, enjoying a constant temperature and humidity level that allows them to develop the unique flavor profile of Pecorino di Fossa. As the aging process continues, the cheese takes on a golden hue and a crumbly texture. The flavor becomes big, slightly musty, and sharp, with a finish of soil and straw.

Pecorino di Fossa, sometimes also simply called Formaggio di Fossa, is traditionally aged until the feast day of St. Catherine of Alexandria, when it is unearthed admist much celebration and fanfare. This specific and unique process makes this a highly seasonal cheese, usually only available for a few months after it is unearthed. I would be very skeptical of any Pecorino di Fossa offered for sale in June, but from Christmas through the New Year is an ideal time to enjoy it, as it continues to ripen and intensify in its little cheesecloth sack.

You can capture your own taste of Pecorino di Fossa at DiPalo Dairy, on the corner of Grand and Mott Street in Little Italy, or at Formaggio Essex in the Essex Street Market, located on Essex Street between Delancey and Rivington Streets.