Cheesemaker Jackie and I at the Monteillet Fromagerie, coating a sheep & goat milk cheese in vegetable ash, 2012. Photo by Steven Scardina.
Sheep milk is fascinatingly fatty. I had the honor to work closely with sheep and their milk during my time at The Monteillet Fromagerie in Dayton, Washington. The farm, run by an American woman and her French husband is like some sort of pocket of 1970s charm that never gets old. In fact, the place is so charming and intoxicating -- with its river that runs through the property and its hidden away sauna, its unbeatable hospitality, and its hosts that have an unmatched je ne sais quoi -- that made it hard to leave.
I worked there twice during my 20s and I couldn't get enough. I was happy to live in an airstream and make cheese religiously and almost obsessively. And to be honest -- there was not much else to do in Dayton, Washington than entertain yourself with the protein & fat matrix that is sheep milk.
At one point, I hand-picked cardoon thistle from a dried purple cardoon flower. All the dried cardoon thistle petals became my tea leaves and I steeped them in hot water until I had created my own thistle rennet from scratch à la Culture: the word on cheese magazine. Sheep milk is so fascinating in its structural make-up that it has a way of curdling and ripening into the most distinctly round and gooey-airy substance that is thistle rennet cheese. The sheep milk behaves differently than cow and goat milk when it meets thistle rennet.
And with any rennet (the enzyme that separates curds and whey in milk), sheep milk curd is the most abundant and fatty I've ever seen.
"It's like half-and-half," Joan Monteillet the owner would always say, "I put it in my coffee every morning."
What decadence...natural rich flavors of hazelnut, hay, and dulce de leche best describe sheep milk's pure form. With the flock of 40 some-odd sheep, coffee decadence was a daily affair. In order for sheep's milk to hold so much fatty goodness, it must also have a high protein count and those short chain amino acids hold the fat solids quite nicely. This special curd structure brings us the sheep cheeses we have today. And as the specialty cheese industry grows, so does the interest in sheep milk cheeses.
Tomales Farmstead Creamery makes a blend of goat & sheep milk cheeses, available here.
Storing sheep milk cheese in the fridge in the Grotto
Sheep milk cheese can taste so pristine and pure when kept cold. But the nuance in flavor of soft-ripened, bloomy rind styles of cheese can become lost at colder temperatures. So if you store your sheep cheeses in the fridge, be sure to allow them to come to room temperature for at least an hour before serving them to maximize the experience.
For denser semi-hard cheeses, its smooth paste can look like ivory or bone in classics like the Abbay de Belloc or Ossau Iraty. For drier, aged styles, the cheese stays tightly woven together, with salt at the forefront. Again, the full-flavored experience only awakens when taken out of the fridge for at least an hour beforehand.
Corsu Vecchiu, Semi-hard Corsican sheep milk cheese.
Storing sheep milk cheese at room temperature in the Grotto
Soft-ripened, bloomy sheep milk cheese will unfold and soften their double-cream like behavior all over the Grotto shelf as it ripens at room temperature. Its high fat content will stand up well to the slightly warmer temperature of the kitchen counter and the sweetness of the milk will shine.
Semi-hard to dense sheep milk cheeses are often so fatty that they can weep their fats when stored at room temperature. This is something that can be experienced when storing one's aged pecorino in the Grotto on the kitchen counter, but it is something to not be alarmed about. Sheep milk cheese is delicate as it is robust in texture and in flavor. It will change its character at room temperature, but that is not to necessarily its fault or its downfall. Rather, the flavors of the milk will become more prominent. Simply make sure to store it for seven to ten days under 70 degrees F so the cheese does not weep too much.
The beginning of a growing industry
As sheep cheese gains popularity, so does the need for vocabulary around those cheeses, as well as a deeper understanding on how the cheese is made and best enjoyed.
*Though Cheese Grotto’s Jessica Sennett is an expert at bringing out cheese’s best flavors, she is not an expert in food safety and she does not offer any opinion about food safety. New York Department of Health regulations requires restaurants to store cheese at a temperature below 45 degrees F, except for up to two hours during preparation for food service. Nothing in Cheese Grotto’s materials, including statements regarding the shelf life of cheese, is intended to (and the materials should not be interpreted to) conflict with food safety regulations and recommendations.