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Don’t Be Sheepish

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Dairy sheep at Green Dirt Farm in Missouri Dairy sheep at Green Dirt Farm in Missouri Photo by Rachel Kleine

By Rachael Lucas

Sheep’s milk cheese is both my favorite and least favorite. When it is good, it’s superb, and when it’s off, it is, in a word, offensive.

You see, ewe’s milk has a significantly higher fat, and protein content than the other common milk types found in cheese; therefore, it possesses more volatile compounds to tinker with--and muck up. Merely transporting a pail of fresh ewe’s milk to the cheesemaking facility is precarious business. Too much sloshing of the milk will break up fat molecules, prematurely releasing volatile compounds, and resulting in rancid and off flavors. It is that easy to mess up a sheep cheese, and the cheesemaking process has not even begun!   But when cheesemaking and affinage go as planned, you will not find a better exemplification of terroir, lactic quality, and that satisfying sensation that we get when consuming loads of healthy butterfat. Moreover, the sheer variety of ewe’s milk cheeses in existence is astounding. It’s because sheep have been domesticated and nourishing humanity for thousands upon thousands of years. We needn’t shy away from this milk type. Such cheese commands our understanding and respect.

I have noticed some confusion with regards to ewe’s milk cheese at the retail level. Most recently, there was the pursed lips lady who insisted that my boss had sold her a Romano Toscano. I tried to tell her that Romano signified that the cheese came from Emilia Romagna and Toscano simply means that it’s a Tuscan cheese. But those lips weren’t having it. They beaded with sweat, grew tighter and more insistent that I was mistaken, that she wanted her Romano Toscano, and where was my boss?

Rachael L with platter of cheese PicmonkeyAn aged ewe's milk tastiing that serves as research for the article, and also palate development practice.

In hopes of avoiding more labial lashings, I want to clarify that in Italy, the word pecora means female sheep, or ewe, so every cheese that is made with milk from the pecora is a pecorino (romance languages are dummy proof!). In France, the word for ewe is brebis (pronounced bruh-bee), and in Spanish, ewe is oveja (oh-bay-ha). If you are just delving into the world of cheese, knowing the names of the animals in their respective languages makes shopping for cheese much easier. Correct pronunciation is a bonus, but it doesn’t change the flavor of the cheese.

Last week, I conducted a tasting that was comprised of eight relatively aged ewe’s milk cheeses. I welcomed a reminder of the subtle similarities, but mostly I wanted to delve into the mishmash of flavors and textures that you get when you take on a mature sheep cheese board. Most of my cheeses came from Delaurenti at Pike Place Market in downtown Seattle. Rosie, my trusted cheesemonger (and colleague), set me up with a gorgeous spread. The board was comprised of the following in order:   Manchego, Corsu Vecchio, Le Berger Basque, Arpea, Berkswell, Pecorino di Filiano, Pecorino Toscano Stagionato, and Ewephoria. Though their nuances vary, this collection is relatively equal in strength, so the ordering could have gone in almost any direction.   Though I had an appreciation for them all, there were a few to be highlighted—the ones that make me lust after ewe’s milk cheese.

Pecorino di Filiano stood out because of its utter rusticity. This raw milk, natural-rinded cheese comes from Italy’s Basilicata. It is apropos in its representation of the rugged terroir. This wedge of Di Filiano was sulfuric and roasty, like cooked brussels sprouts. It had a thick chew to it, and oof, that rind! It smelled of funky rubber and tasted like clay mud, meow! Altogether, I found it to be quite gratifying as well as thought provoking. I love cheese that challenges me and instigates intellectual reflection. Rustic pecorinos like this often make me think about their history that is rooted in maritime trade in the Mediterranean during antiquity.

Corsu Vecchio was another favorite. This is a raw milk Corsican cheese with a practically odorless (if not a little fishy), natural rind. The paste was like a silky sponge, and its flavor was warm, nutty, sweet and had a tinge of lanolin (*for an explanation of lanolin, see the footnote). This cheese reminds me of the sheep themselves. It is docile, likeable, and warm.

Le Berger Basque (made with raw milk) always wins on my cheese boards. It satisfies in a salacious sort of way. This wedge had some gorgeous microflora developing on the rind. It was an extraordinary orange/burnt sienna. It smelled of cinders in a fireplace. This wheel was well-aged, inundated with tyrosine crystallization, and had hints of strawberries and tart plums.   It was a crunchy, tutti fruity bite. I cannot express enough how much I appreciate the Basque and their contribution to my love for fromage. Countless sensational sheep cheeses hail from this region.

This tasting got me thinking about why cheesemakers opt to utilize sheep as their means for cheesemaking, other than the obvious reasons like they can thrive on topography that would be impossible for other ruminants, and that their cream is so damn luscious. I inquired with a respected cheesemaker from Missouri’s Green Dirt Farm about what’s the appeal of the ewe variety. Rachel Kleine says, “There is this old Spanish proverb that we love to quote at Green Dirt Farm, ‘Cheese from the ewe, milk from the goat, butter from the cow’. It speaks to the chemistry of the milk. Sheep milk has almost twice the amount of fat and protein as cow or goat milk, which means we get a higher yield when turning it into cheese. The slightly higher lactose content combines with the fat content to create this incredible tasting, sweet, rich milk. We joke that it's like drinking a milkshake. (It is really delicious to add to coffee!) The resulting cheese has an amazing complexity of flavors, including a nuttiness that anyone who has had sheep's milk cheese will be familiar with.” 

Sheep’s milk cheese is indeed complex. Those previously mentioned volatile compounds develop into a plethora of aromas and flavors. Before I started working with cheese, I thought that the term volatile had only a negative connotation. However, it turns out that when it comes to cheese, the more volatility the better! Ewe cheese is no stranger to combustive flavor.

As it’s lambing season, we can look forward to fresh ewe’s milk cheeses to be available! This also indicates that Spring is upon us. Please remember to look to your local farmer’s market for fresh ewe’s milk and cheese. These artisan cheesemakers work year-round to produce the best quality products for us to enjoy. They deserve our support. And we owe it to ourselves to not be sheepish about indulging in some of the most flavorful, creamy foodstuff in existence.

And while you’re joyously nibbling away on your next sheep cheese, think about Rachel Kleine who says, “There is something so peaceful about going out with the flock and sitting in the pasture surrounded by these creatures. They just hang out chowing down on grass, with these soulful eyes and knowing smiles, and you can just tell - they've got the secrets to life figured out.”

*Footnote: Lanolin is the oil that sheep secrete.   It has a distinct aroma and flavor which is difficult to aptly describe. I recommend visiting a sheep pasture and take a whiff. You’ll know. Levels of lanolin vary, which could be due to seasonality. Also, older sheep secrete more lanolin. Hints of lanolin are agreeable, and it serves as an indicator that you’re eating a sheep cheese. Too much lanolin, however, can make you feel like you’re licking a wet sheep.

Rachael Lucas with cheese wheels MUG 

Editor’s note:   Rachael is an American Cheese Society Certified Cheese Professional (CCP).  You can most often find her cheesemongering in the Seattle area.  When she's not working with cheese, she's eating it, talking about it, reading about it, writing about it, and dreaming about it.  She can be reached with inquiries about fromage and food excitement in the Seattle area at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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