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Manchego Cheese
Manchego is Spain’s most famous cheese, produced in La Mancha in Central Spain from raw, 100% sheep’s milk. This lovely Manchego is from LaTienda.com.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

 

STEPHANIE ZONIS, Contributing Editor, focuses on good foods and the people who produce them.

 

 

January 2008

Product Reviews / Main Nibbles / Cheese-Butter-Yogurt

Sheep Cheese

Ewe’re Sure To Love Them: A Guide To Sheep’s Milk Cheeses

 

  • Click here to read other months’ Whey To Go columns

Welcome to Whey to Go! for January, 2008. Every month, we’ll delve into a new cheese-related subject.

Now, don’t back away if sheep’s cheese sounds alien. Like goats, ewes can give milk of surpassing quality. While many people all over the world drink goat’s milk, however, the great majority of sheep’s milk is made into cheese (except in the U.K., where there’s a preference for drinking sheep’s milk). Sheep’s milk cheeses are not always easy to find, but if you hit the mother lode, you’ll find that they run the gamut from soft, fresh and delicate to firm, aged and more powerful.

Sheep are among the first herbivores to have been domesticated. According to an article from New Scientist, this domestication occurred around 9,000 years ago, earlier even than the domestication of cattle. Sheep have long been valued for their wool and for their meat, as well as for their milk. Popular breeds of ewe include the Dorset, Katahdin, East Friesian and my personal favorite, the Barbados Blackbelly. East Friesians and Dorsets, in particular, are noted for good milk yield. Other “good milkers” include the Sardinian (in Sardinia, their milk is used to make a kind of pecorino), the Assaf and the Manchega (no points for guessing what kind of cheese this milk is made into).
Friesiens
Some of the East Friesians at Hidden Meadow Farm in Wisconsin. East Friesians originated in northeast Germany near the Friesian Islands.

Sheep are, of course, typically smaller than cattle. This, along with their usually-gentle nature and the fact that they respond well to human contact, can mean they are a good choice for farms: If you dream of buying a farm and making cheese, consider a flock of sheep. Sheep are a proven and natural method of weed control (they eat mostly flowering plants, while goats graze on shrubs). They can thrive on invasive species of weeds and are even being employed as natural “firebreaks,” keeping down the growth and quantity of vegetation in areas subject to wildfires.

Ewes Versus Cows

Given that ewes are far smaller than cows, you’d expect them to give less milk, and they do. Per milking season, one ewe can produce a total of 600 pounds of milk, but a more common yield would be around one-half, or even one-third, that amount. Of course, this will depend on breed, environment, what kind of care is taken of the sheep, diet and the other usual factors. By contrast, the average cow gives around 50 pounds of milk per day, or 1,500 pounds per year.  The average lactation cycle for a cow (the yearly period during which a cow can be milked) is just over 300 days. Fresh sheep’s milk, on the other hand, is often unavailable between October and February.

Ewe’s milk is higher in fat than either cow’s or goat’s milk. Sheep’s milk is also higher in calcium and Vitamins C and E than is cow’s milk.   

Because sheep have a lengthy period when they are “dry,” and because sheep dairies in the U.S. are few in number and not concentrated in any one area, sheep’s milk is often frozen for a period of time, until enough can be collected to make a decent-sized batch of cheese. Ewe’s milk, with its small fat globules, freezes nicely. Cow’s milk, however, has larger globules of fat, and these tend to burst if the milk is frozen. Those smaller fat globules in sheep’s milk have another advantage: they make sheep’s milk easier to digest for some people, including those with lactose intolerance.

And sheep’s milk is a cheesemaker’s dream. With almost twice as much in the way of solids as cow’s milk, and significantly higher in protein, only four to five pounds of sheep’s milk are required to make one pound of cheese. Compare that to the ten pounds of cow’s milk necessary to make the same amount!

Hidden Springs Goats
The Hidden Meadow Farm East Friesians goats head in for milking. Some of the milk produces“Driftless,” an award-winning, scoopable sheep cheese made in Original, Basil and Lavender. Visit HiddenSpringsCreamery.com for more
information.

Mixed milk cheeses that include sheep’s milk are a way for the cheesemaker to incorporate the richness and earthiness of sheep’s milk into a cheese, without having to wait for enough sheep’s milk to be gathered to allow for making a reasonably-sized batch.

Famous Sheep Cheeses

You may well have been eating ewe’s milk cheese for years without knowing it. For Brin d'Amourinstance, France’s most famous blue cheese, Roquefort, is always made from sheep’s milk, as is that Pecorino Romano you grate over your pasta. The first feta was a sheep’s milk cheese; it’s possible that the first ricotta was, too, though there’s debate on this issue. Spain’s Manchego, Idiazabal and Zamorano are all products of sheep’s milk. Other better-known ewe’s milk cheeses include Ossau-Iraty, Brin d’Amour, and the U.K.’s Berkswell and Beenleigh Blue.

Photo at left: Brin d’Amour (alternative spelling Brindamour), also known as Fleur du Maquis, is a Corsican sheep cheese covered with rosemary needles; it is topped with peppercorns and juniper berries. It can be enjoyed at all stages of ripeness; as the cheese ages, an edible mold, visible in the photo, develops between the rosemary needles and the cheese.

 

Sheep’s milk cheeses are less common in the U.S. Perhaps the sheep creamery recognized by the greatest number of people here is Old Chatham Sheepherding Company, makers of delicious Hudson Valley Camembert* and Ewe’s Blue (oh, and some amazing sheep’s milk yogurt…but that’s a different article). There are more sheep creameries in this country than there once were, and their number is increasing slowly. Valley Shepherd Creamery, in New Jersey, offers their delightful Oldwick Shepherd (in both a smoked and unsmoked version), in addition to some of those mixed milk varieties. Hidden Springs Creamery, in Wisconsin, makes a dreamy, fresh, soft, sheep’s milk cheese called “Driftless” (which, alas, is of quite limited availability). You can visit the American Cheese Society (CheeseSociety.com) to see the award-winning sheep’s milk cheeses from their annual competition.
Oldwick Shepherd
Aged wheels of Oldwick Shepherd (small rounds on top) are raw sheep's milk cheese made in the style of the Ossau-Irraty cheeses of the French Basque. From ValleyShepherd.com. Photo courtesy of Northwest Jersey Buy Fresh Buy Local.

*A bit of cow’s milk is added to the largely sheep’s milk Camembert to improve the creaminess, velvety texture and buttery taste.

Although you may have to search for sheep’s milk cheeses, they’re worth a little effort on your part. They’ll please you with their full flavor and richness, no matter which variety you choose. Make it a point to try some sheep’s milk cheese soon; ewe’ll thank me! 

Cheese of the Month: Vermont Shepherd

Vermont Shepherd is an aged, raw milk sheep’s cheese sold by a Vermont farm of the same name. The cheese has been made since 1993. This is a cheese with a natural rind, aged for between four and eight months on wooden boards in the Vermont Shepherd aging caves (as Vermont is short on natural caves with ideal environments for aging cheese, these caves are manmade). Vermont Shepherd is made only during the spring and summer, and, as the artisan manufacturer is not a huge factory, supplies are available from August until they sell out (usually during the springtime).

What do I like about this cheese? Everything! It’s rich enough but not overpoweringly so (even I can’t eat double crème cheeses all the time), buttery but not oily, and beautifully full-flavored without being too strong. Vermont Shepherd is one of the greatest multi-tasking cheeses I know. Dress it up by pairing it with a glass of wine or as part of an elegant cheese plate, use it for stuffing a chicken breast in your best Chicken Cordon Bleu, or enjoy it while you and your buddies watch the big game.
Vermont Shepherd
Vermont Shepherd.

This cheese is as much at home in a grilled cheese sandwich (with good whole grain bread, if you please!) as it is served with good seasonal fruit. I’ve even used it to make a very upscale macaroni and cheese. It’s not too powerful for most kids, nor does it lack the complexity to attract demanding adults. Vermont Shepherd is a great first sheep’s milk cheese for those who think such cheeses will be too “sheepy” for them. This cheese is not inexpensive, but it shouldn’t be a bargain; it’s obviously made with devotion and a lot of love. Online ordering is available via the farm’s website, at VermontShepherd.com.

Sources

 

 

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