I have a secret to share. It’s not terribly juicy but it does often surprise most folks. So here it goes: You eat more sheep’s milk cheese than you think. It’s true. A good number of folks have no idea how often sheep’s milk cheeses find their way onto their plate. Have you ever stopped into your local Italian specialty market to pick up ricotta for your lasagna? If you have, you’ve had sheep’s milk cheese. Same goes for pecorino Romano—that’s a sheepy cheese as well. The Italian word for sheep is pecora.
We talked a little about sheep’s milk cheeses in my very first post on artisanal cheeses. Sheep have been used for dairy productions since long before cows entered the picture. Historically, the majority of dairy sheep could be found in Europe and the Mediterranean. But recently, the US has jumped on the dairy sheep bandwagon!
To refresh your memory: Sheep’s milk has the second highest fat content when compared to goat’s and cow’s milk. The only milk higher in fat content is water buffalo. (We’ll talk about those ornery water buffalos at a later date.) In addition to having one of the highest fat contents of all milks, sheep’s milk also boasts nearly the highest calcium content, losing first place again to the water buffalo. Sheep’s milk is also richer in vitamins A, B and E, calcium, phosphorus, potassium and magnesium than cow’s milk. It can be frozen until enough milk is obtained to make yogurt or cheese without changing the chemical properties of the milk. With the high fat, mineral and solid contents and hardiness, it is ideal for making cheese and yogurt.
Any female sheep that has been lambed (produced offspring) produces milk. However, some breeds are better than others when it comes to producing milk. Traditionally, the Lacaune, the East Friesian, and Awassi are the top dairy sheep. But other breeds offer great milk as well, such as the Black Welsh.
So know that you know how awesome sheep’s milk is, let’s talk about some specific types of sheep’s milk cheeses. Cheeses made with sheep’s milk can range in flavor from pungent to light and mild. That is the beauty of sheep’s milk—the diversity! Here’s a look at a few favorite sheep’s milk cheeses along with some pairing suggestions.
First up, Roquefort from France. This creamy sheep’s milk cheese relies on Penicillium roqueforti (a natural fungus often used in flavoring agents) to give it that pungent, delicious aroma and taste. Roquefort is made with milk from the Lacaunes ewes and aged in natural Combalou caves located in Roquefort-sur-Soulzon.
Pairing Suggestions: Roquefort has a strong, specific flavor that pairs amazingly well with sauternes. As for beer, this bold cheese deserves a bold beer and only in particular comes to mind: barleywine! With its strong flavor and intensity, barleywine and Roquefort make a great pairing. Barleywine can be fruity and sweet, and when paired with the unique flavor profile of Roquefort, it’s a match made in beer and cheese heaven.
Another popular sheep’s milk cheese is manchego, a Spanish cheese made exclusively from the milk of sheep grazing upon the plains of La Mancha. Traditionally, manchego is made from raw milk (unpasteurized and non-homogenized) and aged for several months. It is sweet and tangy with a firm texture. Manchego stands up well to aging. As the months pass, the flavors intensify, the saltiness heightens and the texture becomes firmer—and perfect for grating.
Pairing Suggestions: Manchego pairs very well with crisp white wines and cavas. A medium-bodied red wine like a shiraz or merlot works great with this Spanish sheep’s milk cheese. A plate of roasted red peppers, crusty bread and olives will round out your manchego tasting plate very well.
Finally, let’s head over to Switzerland and talk about Flixer. Flixer is a very rare cheese made by only one cheesemaker. Its rind is reminiscent of Gruyère, but that’s about it. Once you cut open the small, semi-hard wheel, you will find a cheese boasting a chestnut flavor. More savory than sweet, it melts in your mouth with a lingering aftertaste.
Pairing Suggestions: Sauvignon Blanc pairs well with this unique sheep’s milk cheese.
Other notable sheep’s milk cheeses from around the globe include: feta (Greek), halloumi (Greek), Ossau-Iraty (French), Cabrales (Spanish), Idiazabal (Spanish) and Abbaye de Belloc (French). I’m sure your local cheesemonger has some of these gems in the case. Stop by and ask for a taste and start to explore the wonderful world of sheep’s milk cheeses. It will change your life!
Editor’s Note: What’s your favorite sheep’s milk cheese? Chime in below!
Annie Lehrer is a nurse practitioner who will soon be a farm girl and cheesemaker. Born and raised in St. Louis, she’s been in the kitchen with her mother and grandmother since she can remember. Having a house full of family, friends and delicious food is her idea of the perfect way to spend an evening. A former travel nurse, Annie has lived in various cities across the U.S. exploring diverse culinary scenes. Food—and everything associated with it, from earth to belly—is her passion. She dwells in downtown St. Louis with her cheesemonger husband, Simon. When not caring for patients at the hospital, Annie is swillin’ craft beer with her beer nerd crew, researching livestock, writing recipes, planning chicken coop designs, keeping up with the St. Louis art scene and spending time with her big Lebanese family. She loves cheese. She writes about all things cheese on her blog The Cheesemonger’s Wife. She’s funny as hell. You can try and keep up with her crazy life on Twitter.