ROME, Dec. 1 (Xinhua) -- The savory, tangy taste of one of Italy's best-known cheeses -- Pecorino Romano -- is making its way onto more Chinese dinner tables.
Pecorino Romano, an aged, hard cheese made of sheep's milk, is among the 100 European Union (EU) agricultural products given a special protected status in China under a reciprocal agreement negotiated between China and the EU. Makers of Pecorino Romano have wasted no time building on that new standing.
Starting from a relatively small base, exports of Pecorino Romano to China have increased by nearly 150 percent this year, according to the Consortium for the Protection of Pecorino Romano Cheese. Exports to China this year will total around 13,000 kg (nearly 29,000 pounds) of Pecorino Romano. But key industry figures say that is just the start.
"We are just getting started in China," Gianni Maoddi, a producer of Pecorino Romano and the newly-elected president of the consortium, told Xinhua. "When I've traveled to China for trade fairs, I find more and more people attracted to the strong and salty taste of Pecorino Romano."
Maoddi predicted that exports to China could increase 30 times over the next decade, to as much as 400,000 kg (nearly 900,000 pounds). That level of exports would nearly match current Pecorino Romano exports to Canada, one of the most stable markets for the cheese.
"All the conditions exist for a market in China to grow," said Andrea Pinna, co-owner and commercial director for Fratelli Pinna, which most years produces around a seventh of Italy's total production of Pecorino Romano.
"Chinese consumers are increasingly curious about foreign foods, and our cheese is one of the most distinctive on the market and one that can be adapted to local culinary traditions," said Pinna. "The cheese also carries the well-known 'Made in Italy' brand, which is a symbol of high quality in foreign markets."
Half a dozen types of pecorino are made in Italy, including Pecorino Sardo (from Sardinia) and Pecorino Toscano (from Tuscany). But Pecorino Romano is the most widely available version. According to the consortium, Pecorino Romano represents nearly two-thirds of all the sheep's milk cheese made in Italy and around 85 percent of those that carry the name "pecorino."
In Italy, the cheese is usually grated and added to an array of pasta dishes, shaved into thin slices and combined with other cheeses to add depth of flavor, or broken into small blocks with a cheese knife as an anchor for cheese plates.
Today, the Sardinia-based Pinna said, around 85 percent of Pecorino Romano is produced on the island region of Sardinia -- not in the areas surrounding Rome, as the name implies.
"The word 'Romano' refers to the specific process used to make the cheese and not where the cheese is from," Pinna said, adding that the Roman version of the cheese became the most popular because of its wide appeal.
Maoddi said that appeal remains the key to the growing popularity of Pecorino Romano in China and other new markets.
"The name 'Pecorino Romano' may not be well known in China today, but we think that may be starting to change," Maoddi said.