By Paul Partica, The Cheese Shop Of Centerbrook
When I mention cheese made from sheep milk, I am often amazed that so many people still balk in fear of what they perceive as the taste and smell of nasty old sheep. Fortunately, nothing could be further from the truth. Most cheeses made from sheep’s milk are mild, creamy and pleasant, leaving you with a wonderful finish that beckons for another taste.
Some of you may recall my column on cheese families (Ink Magazine, Fall 2013) wherein I classified cheeses into one of 12 families. The 12th family, goat and sheep, has many members to its credit since almost every cheese-producing country makes sheep varietals. Here are a few of these great cheeses, listed by country. There is no particular order of quality or choice; let your palate decide.
This is one of the world’s oldest cheeses made in the Southwestern region of France. It has an Appellation d’Origine Controlee (AOC) designation, which is controlled by law to meet certain high standards, such as:
- a particular breed of animal;
- a particular area where the milk for the cheese originates;
- the cheese-making process;
- the composition of the cheese: butterfat content, type of rind, etc.;
- the appearance of the cheese; and
- special characteristics such as color, aroma, flavor, etc.
Ossau Iraty is an uncooked (or raw milk) cheese, which only adds to its wonderful flavor. It ranges between three to four months in age and its color can vary from white to cream, depending on its age. Its texture is somewhat firm, with a creamy smooth finish that is subtly reminiscent of nuts and olives. Eye formations (holes) are usually not present in this cheese, but they can occur. Butterfat content is 45 percent and the wheel size averages eight to ten pounds.
This wonderful find from France pairs well with pears, apples, olives and assorted charcuterie such as prosciutto and salami. A good Bordeaux or Rhône will work nicely; I also like dry Burgundy as well with this.
Abbey de Belloc
This French cheese is made by the Benedictine monks at the monastery of Notre Dame and it is fairly new in the realm of cheeses – about sixty years old. Although it is based on the previously-mentioned Ossau Iraty and has a similarly mild, creamy and smooth taste, it is by no means a poor imitation. Abbey de Belloc stands on its own merits. The taste is has a slight caramel and nut flavor but unlike the aforementioned, this cheese is made from pasteurized milk. It usually has no eye formations and the wheel is also about ten pounds.
Also from the Basque region of France, this small two-pound cheese has been handmade for centuries. Shepherds would save any leftover curd set aside from the day’s milking to make this small cheese. It has some Spanish influence, which is apparent in the tire tread-like appearance of the rind. This is commonly seen on Spanish cheeses, such as Manchego and Iberico.
P’tite Basque has a nice smooth and creamy flavor and it makes a great presentation with its ability of being served whole on a cheese tray because of the diminutive wheel size. It pairs well with fruits, cured meats and black berry preserves. Try Spanish dry red wines or a Cabernet Sauvignon with it.
I always enjoy the reaction from a customer when asked if they have had Ewephoria lately. I love the clever little pun in this name. This relative newcomer to the world is only about ten years old. The cheese is aged for almost a year, which is a long time for a cheese this size.
Ewephoria is one of the longer-aged sheep cheeses, and it tends to remind me of the extra-aged cow’s milk Goudas such as Beemster XO with its similar butterscotch whiskey notes. There is no gamey sheep milk taste to be concerned with here.
Ewephoria is a great recommendation when you are looking for something sharp but different. It pairs well with hoppy beers, but I prefer it with Bourbon or a single malt Scotch.
Try it instead of cheddar on burgers or in mac ’n cheese.
Here’s another cleverly-named cheese, but this time with help from the United States. Lambchopper is sold under the Cypress Grove label in California and made for them in Holland, which is the longstanding producer of Gouda cheeses.
This is certainly one of the milder cheeses described in this article. It ripens young, around three to four months old when sold, and it looks like typical Gouda but with a very light, almost ivory cover on its outer-waxed rind.
Lambchopper is made from pasteurized milk and vegetable rennet. The taste is buttery mild and finishes with a hint of sweetness. It pairs well with ales and porters, but I also like it with Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc or slightly sweeter Vouvray.
These are just a few of the more popular sheep milk cheeses from France and Holland. My next column (Part 2) will cover the same but from other countries, including Italy, Spain and the United States.