One of the most important aspects of sheep’s milk cheese making is called transumanza, which is the transferring of the herds from the mountains to the valley pastures. Shepherds will take their animals up to the higher altitudes because the pastures are wilder there, and then back down into the valley pastures. The things that the sheep eat in each pasture are reflected in the milk produced so you can get a lot of variation if you choose, or you can combine milk from several different pastures to get a more even result. Most farms will milk the sheep two to three times a day, then the resulting milk will be combined to produce a more consistent cheese.
Sheep’s mink cheese is a bit more difficult to produce than cheese made from cow’s milk because sheep only lactate for about 6 months out of the year. The exact time depends on the climate in which they live, the warmer the climate the longer their lactation period is. The cheese, unlike with cow’s milk, can only be produced for about half the year, which is why it is not as prevalent on store shelves. Another drawback is that it takes 8-12 liters of milk to make 1 kilo of cheese. Particularly in the United States, sheep’s milk cheese is not as popular to produce because it is very difficult to make money, where the EU gives subsides to farmers who produce these cheeses, the U.S does not.
Pyrenees is an epicenter for sheep’s milk cheese making. There are three valleys there that are filled with sheep farmers, who transport their livestock up and down the slopes to get that great blend of higher elevation and valley floor milk for their cheese. Often there will be one person that ages the cheese of many shepherds, who will all bring their fresh wheels of cheese to this person who will treat the cheese in a brine bath and then age it. The salt in the brine bath not only gives cheese the rind, but also enhances flavor.
Just like wit cow’s milk, sheep’s milk can make any texture cheese. It all depends on how you cut the curds. Larger curds will produce a softer cheese, while the smaller the curd the harder the final product will be.
With each cheese tasting we have several condiments paired up, as well as two wines. With each cheese I will mention which condiments I liked best, as well as how the wines paired up.
- Ardeche Cerise Noire- organic, made in small batches, black cherries, rather sweet
- Vecchia Black Cherry- from Modena, black cherry with a touch of balsamic, sweeter, you can taste the balsamic
- Mousquetaitre Cerise Noire Espelette- a little bit of bite
- Mostards Mediterranea- chutney style, made from fruit with mustard seed and oil, kind of spicy, in a similar way to vinegar
Bandol Cassis 2014- blend, clay, limestone, floral, hint of citrus, honey, dry, more citrus in the mouth, smooth, a bit of acidity/sourness, delicate
Beaujolais villages Lucien Lardy 2015- gamey, aged in concrete, flavorful, typical gamey
- Bergeval Sheep’s milk, Werbomont/Belgium- camber, organic, unpasteurized, (it is thermized, which means the temperature never reached pasteurization temperature but it was still heated). There is a strong smell of animal, but also maybe a bit vegetal. It is creamy with a bit of milkiness. The flavor kind of goes up in your nose in a similar way as wasabi. You can taste the brine on the rind, but the rind is not very textured. Made from beginning of the season milk, clean and floral
- Condiments- I really enjoyed 1 and 3 with this cheese
- With the white wine- a bit on the creamy side to have with the wine, but the wine has the acidity to kind of cut the fattiness of the cheese
- Tomette de Brebis Fermier, Haute Savoie/ France- Compared to the last one, this cheese is not very smelly, it is harder, yet still chewy with a more mild taste than cheese 1. The flavor lingers the palate and is clean and floral
- Condiments- 1 and 3 were my favorites here, 4 I did not like so much (it was a bit overpowering)
- White Wine- the acidity of the wine is a bit overpowering for the more subtle flavor of the cheese
- Brebis Haunt Bearn Fermier, Pyrenees/ France- Fermier means farmhouse in French. This cheese is harder still with a parmesan like consistency, but less flakey. It actually has a similar smell to parmesan and kind of dries out your mouth a bit, clean and floral.
- Condiments- 2 and 3 were really good with this, the balsamic in 2 went really nicely. Even 4 was pretty good, the bitterness actually goes really well with the dry cheese. It was the first cheese I liked 4 with.
- White Wine- The acidity of the wine and the drying factor of the cheese work really well together, it was a perfect pair
- Brebis Abbaye de BellocPyrenees- This cheese is pasteurized, and made from 60-70 farmers’ milk that was blended together. It gives a slight lack of control to the finished product because you cannot determine where all the sheep grazed, yet it is consistent. It is the same style as cheese 3, also dry, flavorful, a bit more flat, yet still good.
- Condiments- 1 and 3 were the best with this cheese, 4 was also not bad but I liked it better with the previous cheese.
- Wine- This cheese gets a bit more lost in the acidity of the wine than cheese 3 did, but it is still a good pairing.
- Eekiola Ardi Gasna Fermier, Pyrenees- This is a hard cheese and is more scented than previous two. It is pretty dry and a bit flakey, with an aftertaste that is kind moistened with fat, it has a bite and is more concentrated.
- Condiments- 1- A nice sweetness/dryness combo, 2- There is a good blend with balsamic, 4- I think I like this one best, nice spice/bite combo.
- Wine- The bite of the cheese and acidity of the wine go very well together.
- Brebis Pardou Haute Montagne, Pyrenees- This cheese is more smelly, kind of like a swiss smell, to which it also has a similar texture. It is smoother, yet has a delicate flavor. There is more of a scent in the mouth than in the nose. Kind of a nice funky aftertaste/finish.
- Condiments- 2- really good, the slightly creamy texture of cheese with balsamic splash compliments
- Wine- The acidity of the wine cuts the creamy cheese, yet the cheese is a bit overpowered by it.
- Brebis pardou Grand Cru, Pyrenees- There is a more musty smell, the texture is still creamy but has a bit more bite/dryness, more animaly flavor (better than #6 in my opinion).
- Condiments- 1 and 3 went nicely with it, but 4 with its bitterness was quite good.
- Wine- The cheese stands up much better to the acidity of the wine.
- Calcagno, Cagliari/ Sardegna Italy- The cheese has an after-bite, like parmesan, and almost like garlic. There is definitely a dry bite at the end, but it doesn’t dry your mouth out.
- Condiments- 2- I love the balsamic with this cheese, 3 was also really good.
- Red Wine- The floral fruit of the wine complements with the dry bite is an opposites attract situation.
- Pecorino gran Riserva di Pienza, Pienza Tuscany, Italy- This one has much more of a mouth drying sensation. The smell is less than 8, but there is more of a mouth smell, kind of animaly.
- Condiments- 3- I like the sweetness with the dry bite of the cheese, 4- the dryness/ bite of the cheese with the bite of the mustard is a bit much in my mouth, but compliments each other well
- Wine- The floral fruit pairs well with the dry bite of the cheese.
- Pecorino caggiano, Basilicata Italy- The cheesemaker for this cheese makes her own molds with twigs and hay. This cheese is drier and more flakey, definitely had a more or an earthy flavor, but is not as scented.
- Condiments- 2 and 3 were good but 4 went really well because of the bite of the mustard, which is so nice with the bite of the cheese, not overwhelming.
- Wine- The dryness of the cheese works really well with the fruit of the wine
- Peccorino a Fossa di Pienza, Basilicata Italy- This cheese is dry and flakey, kind of salty and has quite a bite. It is really drying in the mouth and bites the side of the tongue
- Condiments- 1 and 3 were good. 2 has a balsamic sweetness that really compliments dryness of cheese.
- Wine- The fruit flavors go really well to cut the bite of the cheese
- Saveur du Maquis Corsica, France- This one is super creamy and has a sage type flavor, maybe a bit of rosemary on the rind.
- Condiments- 1 and 4 were my favorites here, 4 has a really nice bite with the cream that works so well.
- Wine- I think a wine with more acid would be better, because of the cream, but the flavor of the cheese stands up nicely to the fruit.