Distant Cheeses, Local Farmers: Spanish Sheep's Milk Cheeses in America | culture: the word on cheese
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Distant Cheeses, Local Farmers: Spanish Sheep’s Milk Cheeses in America

In this blog series our intrepid intern Molly will find and interview American cheesemakers attempting to re-create traditional European cheeses. Learn about the difficulties as well as the benefits of this type of cheese making, as well as how terroir and the idea of a cheese tied to a location so distant changes when that cheese is made in a new location. Also, each week you’ll have a chance to win an issue of culture: the word on cheese. Last week’s winner was Amber A.!

Dairy farming in America is centered, for the most part, around the cow. The earliest European settlers brought cattle, animals who were well-suited for the flatlands and rolling hills of the eastern U.S., and in terms of cheesemaking, the large milk supply yielded by cows was ideal for creating lots of large cheeses.

While sheep have been farmed in America throughout the ages, they’ve been used mostly for wool and meat. But a lesser-known fact among the general public is that sheep’s milk is richer than cow’s milk. It has more protein and fat, and it makes delicious cheese. According to Kirstin Jackson, author of It’s Not You, It’s Brie, there were no certified sheep dairies in America until 1990. And it wasn’t until Vermont Shepherd in Westminster West, VT began making sheep’s milk cheese in 1993 that people realized “not only were sheep indeed milkable (gasp!), but their milk made amazing cheese.”

The production of sheep’s milk cheese goes back as far as cheesemaking itself, and has been a staple in the Middle East and Mediterranean for thousands of years. In Spain—where evidence of cheesemaking stretches back to centuries before Christ, and sheep farming has taken precedence in dry, rocky inland regions—sheep cheese has a deep history.

Manchego is perhaps the most well-known Spanish cheese. Made entirely from sheep’s milk, it can be eaten after 2 weeks (fresco), a few months (curado), or more than a year (viejo), its flavor profile progressing from mild, to sweet and nutty, to increasingly sharp, but always having a distinctive sheep’s milk aftertaste. It’s from the La Mancha region of Spain, a vast, high-altitude plateau with cold winters and hot summers. Denominacion de Origen and E.U.-wide PDO legislation dictate the breed of sheep that can be used, the types of moulds (which impart a distinctive zig-zag pattern on the cheese), the use of natural rennet, and the geographic designation of fabrication.

Manchego cheese on left and La Mancha region of Spain on right

Manchego cheese; La Mancha region.
Photo credit: Unknown and Unknown

Idiazabal is another example of a classic Spanish cheese. It’s from the Basque and Navarra regions of the North, where transhumant shepherds bring the sheep to graze in mountain pastures during the summer. Traditionally the cheese aged in the rafters of mountain huts, where smoke from the shepherds’ fires would slowly impart in it a smoky flavor. Today, Idiazabal cheeses usually age for a few weeks after fabrication before being smoked with beech or hawthorne wood and then being aged for several more months. Idiazabal has a nutty, buttery flavor and is often eaten fresh. It’s been a Denominacion de Origen protected cheese since 1987, and regulations dictate the breed of sheep that can be used, the use of natural lamb rennet, and the towns in which it can be made.

Basque sheep on left, Idiazabal cheese on right

Sheep farming in the Basque region; Idiazabal cheese in a Spanish market.
Photo credit: Unknown and Javier Lastras

According to Kirstin Jackson, unlike immigrants from places like Britain, the Netherlands, and Switzerland, who brought their own cheesemaking practices to the U.S., Spanish immigrants were often involved in gold mining, and early-20th century quotas on immigration meant that fewer immigrants from shepherding areas were allowed in. So when Americans in the 1990s finally decided to pursue sheep’s milk cheesemaking, there were no New World traditions on which to base recipes and techniques. Seeking to delve into the semi-firm staples of Spain, many had to travel to Europe to learn from the masters. As a result, many American sheep’s milk cheeses have a more recent (and perhaps more strong) connection to their European relatives.

Unlike Spanish sheep’s milk cheesemakers, American sheep’s milk cheesemakers found themselves pioneering a new industry for which there was little existing infrastructure, and many startups quickly fizzled out. In this volatile climate, cheese plants that wanted to start using sheep’s milk were confronted with a logistical nightmare. In the mid-1990s one cheese plant in Wisconsin, Montchevre, decided to start using sheep’s milk—but only under the condition that they could work with a single source that handled all of the licensing, inspections, inventory and payment. So local sheep farmers responded by forming a co-op, the Wisconsin Sheep Dairy Cooperative, to organize sheep dairying into a more reliable, standardized profession. When the co-op ended up with a surplus of milk, members decided to start making their own cheese. And they looked to Manchego—one of the most well-known sheep’s milk cheeses in the world—for inspiration.

Sheep graze in Wisconsin on left; Dante cheese on right

Sheep graze in Wisconsin; Dante cheese.
Photo credit: Wisconsin Sheep Dairy Co-operative

There was no local version of Manchego for the co-op cheesemakers to replicate, so they decided to figure out how to do it at home, maximizing their method’s compatibility with their local terroir. They partnered with the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which actually has its own sheep dairy research center, to develop a recipe.

Their ‘Manchego-style’ cheese is called Dante, and like Manchego it’s 100% sheep’s milk, and has a sweet and nutty flavor. But unlike in Spain, the co-op is not restricted to using a certain type of mould or things like traditional rennet. Instead, they’ve focused on making the cheese their way, and they’ve been very successful. Dante has been honored at the ACS Awards every year since 2006. Still, they sometimes find it a challenge to sell a cheese that the cheddar-loving locals have never heard of. According to Emily Meisegeier, Operations Manager of the co-op, they’ve recently started making a sheep’s milk cheddar in response to high local demand. “When you’re at the farmer’s market and you can say ‘this one is a cheddar’, then they’re more willing to try it,” she says. “with the Manchego they’re like, ‘well, what the heck is that?'”

Here Emily brings up one of the biggest problems with making a local European cheese in the U.S.: a potential lack of local familiarity and demand. Karen Weinberg of 3-Corner Field Farm in Shushan, NY has her own way of confronting this issue—she’s spent 15 years at farmers’ markets educating people about her sheep’s milk Idiazabal cheese. “They say they want cheddar because they’ve eaten cheddar,” Karen says, “but you give them your cheese and they taste it and they say, ‘oh, that’s good!'” She gives out tastes and informs people so that they can decide if they like it and why, instead of just throwing out a name; “the more we’re at the farmer’s markets, the more people are educated,” she says. 3-Corner Field Farm doesn’t use any distributors; Karen and her husband Paul sell all of their cheese directly to small stores and to consumers. Not only does this help to broaden the public’s knowledge of cheese types, but it also helps them convey what adds value to their cheese—how their pasture-fed sheep are raised, and how cheesemaking is done entirely by hand.

Karen was inspired to make Idiazabal cheese when living in France, where she had access to great cheeses. She’d often bring some Idiazabal home to her friends and family, and it was always a big hit. When she and Paul came back to the U.S. and began experimenting with cheesemaking, they knew there weren’t a whole lot of people making Idiazabal already, and they wanted to branch out and do something unique. Everything came together one day when Karen noticed a bunch of boxes in her UPS driver’s truck; they’d come from the New Skete monastery one town over, and were filled with smoked cheese. As it turns out, the monks had been smoking cheeses for several cheesemakers in Vermont and beyond. Karen had finally found a way to smoke her Idiazabal, practically in her backyard. Today, they make batches of their version, called Frere Fumant. They brine and age the wheels for a couple of weeks until they’re ready for transport, then send them over to Brother David, the monk who smokes the cheeses for them. After smoking, Karen and Paul take the cheeses back and continue to age them for up to 12 months.

Sheep grazing at 3-Corner Field Farm on left; Frere Fumant cheese on right

Sheep grazing at 3-Corner Field Farm; Frere Fumant Cheese.
Photo credit: 3-Corner Field Farm

Despite some similarities, Karen didn’t worry too much about the exact parameters of how Idiazabal was made in Spain. “It’s not an attempt to replicate as much as draw off of that tradition,” she says. She’s most inspired by the Old World tradition of handmade, seasonally-variable cheese. “Everything we do, we do by hand… the milk is heated at a very low temperature, everything is stirred by hand, cut by hand, molded by hand, hand-pressed… we don’t take any shortcuts.” Without any industrial equipment or additives, like its European cousin, the flavor and texture of Karen’s handmade Idiazabal will vary from batch to batch, and from season to season. And like any local cheese it’s heavily shaped by its terroir. “It starts with the milk,” says Karen, “It’s from animals who graze our pastures, who eat the native grass and legumes… it all affects it.”

As a result, Frere Fumant may not taste the same as an Idiazabal, but to her, this isn’t important. “It’s about your level of confidence… If i like it, and if other people try it and and they like it, I don’t need to compare it to something that already exists and say ‘oh, how close did it come to that.’ It can be good in it’s own right even if it was modeled after another cheese.”

Both Karen and Emily have cheesemaking operations that have blazed ahead into unmarked territory. While they’ve both used traditional Spanish cheeses as inspiration, what strikes me is how they’ve utilized resources closer to home to find success. Whether it’s the local University’s research center or a local Monastery, they’ve partnered with other community institutions to build better cheeses. Their growing success proves that even without a local tradition to build off of, American cheesemakers can use perseverance, teamwork, and a connection with the community to move their small businesses forward.

Next week I’ll be talking about French Roquefort and American Ewe’s Blue. Click here for the full post.

Photo credit: Dimitry B.

Molly McDonough

Former Senior Editor Molly McDonough worked for cheesemakers in Switzerland and the US before earning a Master's degree in Agriculture and Food Science at the Ecole Supérieure d'Agriculture in Angers, France. After spending a year in Romania working on rural development projects with Heifer International, she returned home to Boston and joined the culture team in 2015.

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