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Planet Cheese: Sheep Without Borders

sheep milk cheese

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Planet Cheese is a weekly blog devoted to everything cheese: products, people, places, news, and views. James Beard Award-winning journalist Janet Fletcher writes Planet Cheese from her home in Napa Valley. Janet is the author of Cheese & Wine, Cheese & Beer, and The Cheese Course and an occasional contributor to culture. Visit to sign up for Planet Cheese and view Janet’s current schedule of cheese appreciation classes.

And now for something completely different. Swiss producer. Raw sheep’s milk. Washed rind. I don’t know of any cheese that fits that description other than the one you’re about to meet. Oh, and the milk is organic and from French Basque sheep transported to the Swiss Alps. They don’t seem to mind: the views are great, and the shepherds speak French. The ewes quickly adapted, and the cheese made with their milk is one-of-a-kind.

For 85 years, Swiss cheesemakers labored under a state-run system that quashed creativity. Either you made the traditional cheeses (Emmentaler, Gruyère and the like), or you had no buyer. But the cartel-like enterprise that controlled production collapsed in 1999, and the new generation of Swiss cheesemakers is bubbling over with ideas.

One young Swiss shepherd, whose father is also a shepherd, spent three years apprenticing in France’s Basque region and fell in love with the native Basco-Béarnaise breed. These hardy sheep thrive in the Pyrenees. Why wouldn’t they enjoy the Swiss Alps? Now this father-son duo has the only flock of Basco-Béarnaise sheep in Switzerland, which has few dairy sheep of any kind. (Sheep cheese accounts for less than 1 percent of the country’s output.) Their sheep—now numbering 800—graze in pastures as high as 8,000 feet. They look like walking shag rugs.

sheep milk cheese

Basco-Béarnaise sheep

The milk goes to Fromathèque, a six-year-old creamery started by two young men who wanted to innovate. Their creation, Vallée Brebidoux, resembles Raclette—the regional specialty—but it is smaller, creamier, more luscious, more supple. It has the aroma of roasted peanuts and the texture of silk, and it melts on your tongue in an instant. The seven-pound wheel receives four to five months of aging, producing intense yet mellow flavor. The cheese is meaty but not sheepy.

Pair Vallée Brebidoux with Riesling, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris or another fragrant white wine with some body. An off-dry sherry would be an unconventional but interesting match. Look for Vallée Brebidoux now at these retailers, with more shops to come:

San Francisco:
Cheese Plus
Rainbow Grocery

East Coast:
DiBruno Bros (Philadelphia)
Fairfield Cheese Shop (Fairfield, CT)
Foragers Market, New York City
Lucy’s Whey, New York City
Sickles Market (Little Silver, NJ)

South, West, and Midwest:
Cheese Shop of Des Moines
St. James Cheese (New Orleans)
The Truffle (Denver) 

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Janet Fletcher

James Beard Award–winning journalist Janet Fletcher is the author of Cheese & Wine, Cheese & Beer, The Cheese Course, and Planet Cheese, a weekly blog devoted to everything cheese. Visit to sign up for Planet Cheese and view Janet’s current schedule of cheese appreciation classes around California's Bay Area.

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