The Healing Powers of Piacentinu

Remember this: birds migrate in the fall, and so do great cheeses. The holiday season draws rare imports, and you can count on cheese shop shelves to be bountiful and bright. If you’re a caseophile, now is a great time to look to the sky and ask yourself, “What amazing cheese is in store for me tonight?”

This week, I’ve been stuck on a Tanager-colored sheep cheese from Sicily that goes by the name of Piacentinu (pee-uh-CHEN-tin-oo). Its golden color drew me in from the cold to try a sample, and once I tasted the unexpected combination of saffron and peppercorn mixed into the milk, I was sold.

Sweet and perfumed with a dense paste, Piacentinu is the kind of cheese you can set out with a dish of green olives, cured meat, and roasted red peppers for a Technicolor cheese plate, or you can do what I did: shave it over a deconstructed paella salad (see notes below) for a glimmer of sunshine.

Depressed? Anxious? The 12th-century Sicilians who invented this cheese revered saffron as an antidepressant and viewed peppercorns as wildly exotic. In fact, this cheese was special-ordered by Ruggero the Norman who wanted to cheer up his wife. After that, it became a courtly cheese that was thought to have restorative powers.

If you need a bright spot in your existence, stop in to Di Bruno Bros. and ask about their holiday selections. If you forget the name Piacentinu (which derives from the Sicilian word piacenti, or “pleasing”), just ask for a golden wheel flecked with peppercorn and saffron.

Here are some tasting notes:

Taste: See if you can detect a hint of banana on the front end – thanks to cheesemonger Hunter Fike for pointing out that nuance. Expect sweetness, followed by the taste of perfumed milk (think: Indian rice pudding), and a subtle hit of pepper.

Texture: As the seasons change, the maker of this cheese mixes different milks together depending on what’s available, but ewe’s milk usually dominates. This makes for a firm cheese that melts quickly on your tongue, turning soft and creamy. Let your wedge come to room temperature before you serve it. You’ll see it begin melting as it weeps delicate beads of fat – a characteristic of sheep’s milk cheeses.

Tricks for the Plate: Grate Piacentinu over risotto, or try shaving curls onto a deconstructed Paella salad: peas, heirloom tomatoes, mâche, cooked shrimp, and a very light dressing of pure lemon juice and olive oil. Add quinoa for a nutty rice-like stand-in. Bam: you’ve got a healthy lunch, one that’ll brighten even the most seasonally affected sad sack.

Beer/Wine Pairings: On a cheese plate, serve Piacentinu unadorned, with a bottle of Midas Touch (a saffron-kissed brew from Dogfish Head) or go for a bottle of Gewürztraminer or Primitivo.

For more glimmers of cheese hope, visit