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Feeling Sheepish

(post, LouAnn Con)

primary-image, l

I don’t know about you, but some of my favorite cheeses are made from sheep milk.  I love the tanginess it imparts.  Growing up in the Midwest, and well versed in the ways of cow’s milk cheese, for my first encounter, I am ashamed to say, I sallied forth with some trepidation, I had let myself be swayed by the comments on the “bite” or the “interesting” taste, but thankfully my suspicion proved unfounded, because I became love struck that day, and the feelings have only intensified.  I think that’s what happens when you live in a place where the selection was fairly homogeneous – i.e. cheddar, cheese curds, so anything that tastes different was immediately suspect.

first encounters
Sheep milk cheese originated in the countries surrounding the Mediterranean.  The composition of sheep’s milk distinguishes it from other milk in that it has a higher fat content and the fat it contains has more of the short-chain fatty acids that lead to its characteristic flavor and the fact that it is easier to digest (shorter fatty chains vs. longer fatty chains).  Cheese made from sheep’s milk, as I mentioned in a previous post, is seasonal as sheep only have young twice a year, and therefore only lactate twice a year, so its a cheese that is not often at its peak year round.  Of course that depends on a variety of factors including how long the cheese is meant to age, and the methods used to make the cheese, so questions regarding the selection might be a good conversation starter with the local cheesemonger.
Given the composition of the cheese, aside from the distinctive flavor it imparts, it also allows for a relatively high cheese yield. The composition of the mild depends on the breed of the sheep, and like cows, there are dairy sheep.  In terms of volume, sheep produce the least, about 1 quart per day, as compared to a cow (8-10 quarts or 8 to 20 L) and a goat (3 to 4.5 quarts or 3 to 4.5 L).  To further put it in perspective, 2 quarts of milk produce 8 oz of  Camembert. (source: Steve Jenkins Cheese Primer)
I was surprised to learn that Libya is a leading sheep milk cheese producer, and many of the cheeses found there go back several thousand of years.  (Sheep cheese representing some of the earliest made.)  Surprised only because at least in the United States, Libya is never mentioned in any cheese related conversations, but I intend to keep a look out for some of their cheeses in the future.
Cowgirl Creamery a cheesemonger/cheesemaker based out of California has a great on line tool to identify types of cheeses, I filtered it for sheep milk cheese, et voila: Great Tool.
Quick glance chart of country of origin of sheep milk cheeses (only cheese made exclusively with sheep’s milk are identified, other cheeses exist that are an amalgamation of more than one animal milk).
Source: A Complete Illustrated Guild to the Cheeses of the World (Harbutt 1999)
Country                       Cheese
Bulgaria                     Katschkawalj
Czech Republic            Abertam
England                      Friesla, Olde York
France                        Roquefort, Abbaye de Belloc, Perail
Greece                        Kefalotiri, Myzithra, Feta
Hungary                      Liptoi
Italy                           Canestrato Pugliese, Fiore Sardo, Pecorino Romano/Sardo/Toscano
Ireland                       Orla
Portugal                      Serra da Estrela
Romania                     Brinza
Spain                         Castellano, Idiazabal, Manchego, Roncal, Zamorano
Turkey                        Beyaz Peynir, Mihalic Peynir
Libya                           Al Zahra, Jibnet Grus, Al Naseem
Or listed another way – by type:  The famous sheep milk cheeses include (list from
White fresh cheeses
Burgos (Spain)
Villalon (Spain)
Cachat (France)
Perail (France)
Brined cheeses
Feta (Greece, Italy, France)
Teleme (Romania)
Sirene (Bulgaria)
Halloumi (Cyprus)
Hard and semi-hard cheeses
Pecorino Romano, Sardo, Siciliano, Toscano (Italy)
Kefalotyri (Greece)
Idiezabal (Spain)
Manchego (Spain)
Roncal (Spain)
Ossau-Iraty (France)
Blue-veined cheeses
Roquefort (France)
Cabrales (Spain)
Stretched curd cheeses
Kashkaval (Bulgaria/Romania/Macedonia)
Kaseri (Greece)
Whey cheeses
Ricotta (Italy)
Manouri (Greece)
Requeson (Spain)
Broccio (Corsica-France)
Oregon State University has a great primer on sheep milk cheeses.
A nice idea for using that ricotta.
Ricotta Pudding

from Sunday Suppers at Luques, by Suzanne Goin
2 extra-large egg
1 extra large egg yolk
2 c fresh whole-milk ricotta, drained if wet
1 c whole milk
1 ½ tsp thyme leaves
1 chile de arbol, thinly sliced on the diagonal
salt + pepper
Preheat oven to 350º F
Whisk eggs, egg yolk, and ricotta together in a large mixing bowl.  Add the cream, milk, 1 tsp thyme, 2 tsp salt and ¼ tsp pepper.  Whisk to combine – the mixture will be lumpy.
Taste for seasoning, and pour into a buttered 9″ baking dish.  Decorate the top of the pudding with the chile and remaining thyme.  Cover the dish with foil, place in a water bath and bake for 1 hour, until the pudding (custard) is set.