“The main object of an hors d’oeuvre is to provide something beautifully fresh-looking which will at the same time arouse your appetite and put you in good spirits,” Elizabeth David wrote. The eminent English food writer, who died in 1992, had simple tastes but no tolerance for mediocrity. Alice Waters adored her. (I was a lowly cook at Chez Panisse Café when David came in for lunch.)
David believed that a good hors d’oeuvre includes something raw, something salty, something dry or meaty and something gentle. I always think of this when I serve fava beans with pecorino. Although David barely mentions this antipasto in her book on Italian food, it has all her required parts: raw favas, sea salt, aged cheese (although young pecorino works, too) and fruity olive oil. You dip the peeled favas in oil and salt and alternate with a nibble of pecorino.
Bellwether Farms Pepato, a peppercorn-studded sheep’s milk cheese from California’s Sonoma County, is magical with favas. Inspired by Italian pepato, Bellwether’s rendition is moister, less salty and less acidic—just as cheese maker Liam Callahan intended. Following Italian tradition, Callahan uses raw milk and animal rennet—increasingly rare choices here and in Italy. Animal rennet is expensive and a vegetarian turn-off, but Callahan is convinced it improves the outcome. He also stopped waxing the wheels a few years ago, so the cheese develops more concentrated flavor.
Released at about four months, Pepato has a firm, crumbly, butter-colored interior. Personally, I don’t eat the peppercorns, but I love the floral aroma they contribute. Pepato has a subtle fruitiness and a tangy, sour-cream finish—an appealing contrast to sweet favas. I also enjoy it shaved in a salad with butter lettuce and fava beans.
Look for Bellwether Pepato at Rainbow Grocery, Cheese Plus, Bi-Rite Markets and Cowgirl Creamery in San Francisco; Oliver’s Markets in Santa Rosa; Big John’s in Healdsburg, Oakville Grocery; Whole Foods Sonoma; and Pasta Shop in Oakland and Berkeley. Pour a lean, minerally white wine—I’m loving the 2013 Massone Gavi—and use a good olive oil. Now is the last hurrah for fresh fava beans so seize the moment.