Spotlight: Sheep's Milk Cheese
How do we love sheep’s milk? Let us count the ways! This week we want to share with you the beautiful world of cheeses made with sheep’s milk and what it is about our wooly friends that makes their milk so special and delicious. So hop in the sheep jeep, there’s a lot of ground to cover!
Let’s start with the main ingredient in cheese, milk. Sheep’s milk is the highest in protein, fat, and minerals than all other ruminants we traditionally milk, ie. cows, goats, and water buffalo. These factors make sheep’s milk especially suited for cheesemaking; it only takes 4 pounds of sheep’s milk to make 1 pound of cheese, whereas it takes 8 pounds of cow’s milk to yield 1 pound. That being said, sheep produce significantly less milk daily than cows, even goats. But what sheep may lack in production, they make up for in BIG flavor.
You’ll often hear the flavor profile of sheep’s milk cheeses being described as wooly, sheepy, or animalic. But what does that mean? There’s a lot of science behind why their milk tastes the way it does, but to keep it brief, compounds in the milk often correlate with sweet, rich, fatty, caramel-like, even smoky flavors. And some more aged cheeses take on distinct tangy and sharp notes. Once your palate gets to know these flavors you’ll be able to pick out sheep’s milk in one mindful bite.
Now you may already be familiar with sheep cheese without even knowing it. If you’ve grated Pecorino Romano over your pasta or pizza, you’ve already begun the journey into the great wide world of Italian pecorinos. Pecorino Romano might be the most famous (to non-Italians) but the countless styles of pecorinos are among the most loved cheeses in Italy. The term pecorino simply refers to a sheep’s milk cheese, deriving from the Italian word for sheep, pecora. Pecorinos are made in nearly every region of the country, but they are especially concentrated in the southern regions: Lazio, Abruzzio, Molise, Campania, Apulia, Basilicata, and Calabria. A determining factor in this is that as you move south from Rome, topography becomes more arid and infertile, a climate that sheep happen to thrive in. Pecorinos come in a myriad of styles and ages, fresco, semistagionato, stagionato, and are enjoyed in a number of ways, not just for cooking. Younger pecorinos like Pecorino Romangolo may be served with fruit and jam for breakfast, and Pecorino Toscano stagionato makes a great starter or snack alongside salumi and a glass of red wine. With such delicious versatility, it’s no wonder pecorinos are a staple table item in the Italian home.
Sheep farming is a long held and ongoing tradition throughout much of Europe, not just Italy. The famous French blue, Roquefort, has been around since the 15th century! Roquefort is made in southern France from raw milk of the Lacaune breed and aged in natural caves of the region; its blue/green molding from penicillium roqueforti and rich flavor are unmistakable. Brebis is the French term for sheep and you may see that show up in names like Brebirousse or Tomme Chebris. The Basque region, where France and Spain meet, is famous for its sheep’s milk cheeses like Ossau Iraty and Bleu des Basque, both having delightfully sweet, deep, fatty flavor.
Across said border, in Spain, home of the super soft merino wool, is also where you'll find the ever popular Manchego cheese. To be called Manchego a cheese must be made in the La Mancha region in southern Spain and from the milk of the manchega sheep. Like southern Italy, Spain's southern arid climate is very hospitable to sheep. Manchego is certainly Spain's most popular cheese. Aged anywhere from 3 months to a year, Manchego can be buttery and nutty or develop a pleasant piquanteness as it ages. This range of flavor makes Manchego perfect for snacking any time of day or as part of a simple sandwich with jam or jamon.
Unlike Europe, sheep farming has had somewhat of a falling out in the U.S. and it can be a little harder to come by sheep’s milk cheeses. The demands of the American dairy industry are high and the large output of cows is tough competition for the low yielding sheep. Not just in terms of milk, but as a preference for cotton and other materials, and a shift towards beef, pork, and chicken consumption, raising sheep became less financially stable. Thanks to the American artisanal cheese scene though, you can still find some beautiful options. We’d like to highlight Vermont Shepherd in Westminster, West Vermont. This family-owned farm is the oldest sheep dairy farm in the United States and they produce two seasonal cheeses that age 4-feet underground in a cool humid cave. Verano is made with pure summer sheep’s milk and boasts a sweet, rich, herbal flavor. Invierno (pictured in the photo above) is a mix of winter sheep’s milk and some cow’s milk and ages for a strong, spicy, tang.
Now that you've taken a brief, whirlwind tour of sheep's milk cheeses we hope you'll enjoy them in more ways than just on pasta. We’re all for enjoying cheese any time of day, in any way!
Pictured: Gran Cacio Etrusco, Pecorino Romano, La Marotte, Manchego, Lou Bren, Bleu des Basques, Schaaplust, Pecorino Romangolo, Pecorino Toscano, Invierno, Roquefort, La Tur, Robiola Bosina.