I consider myself adventurous, but I've never tried sheep’s milk before. The only sheep’s milk cheese I had eaten back home was feta, which I didn’t even realize was from sheep. That goes to show you how much I knew about cheese before my quest.
It’s not common to drink sheep milk in most cultures but it has a much higher fat content than cow’s milk, making it ideal for cheese-making. There’s even a Spanish proverb that goes, “Cheese from the ewe, milk from the goat, butter from the cow.”
Domesticated sheep have been around for longer than the domesticated cow. The first records of cheese coincide with the domestication of sheep. Historically speaking, sheep’s milk cheese is more authentic than our familiar cow’s milk cheese. I did some research on which cheeses I wanted to try and read about the universal “sheepy” quality that differentiates ewe cheese from cow cheese. I was ready to find out what I’ve been missing for so long.
I chose to go to Fromagerie Marie Quatrehomme this time to get my cheese. I went here because the owner Marie Quatrehomme was the recipient of the MOF, Un des Meilleurs Ouvriers de France, an award given every four years to an exemplary craftsman in particular fields, including food. She was the first woman to win in 2000, which cemented her status as a cheese master for life.
She knows all of her producers personally in order to ensure the quality of the product. She buys cheese that is not fully ripened so that she can finish the ageing process of the cheeses herself in her own cellars. With her expertise in cheese, she’s able to make sure that the customer will always get perfectly ripe cheese, even going so far as to not sell cheese that isn’t at optimum ripeness, even if it’s in stock. Because she cares a lot about what she does, I knew that her cheese would be phenomenal.
The fromagerie, located on 62 Rue de Sèvres, is a very short walk from the Duroc metro stop. It’s in the 7th arrondissement, which is an upscale residential area, making the boulangeries, patisseries and butcheries correspondingly fancier. Quatrehomme has a very different feel to it than Fromagerie Beillevaire. When I arrived on a Saturday evening, the place was bustling. There was a line of people getting cheese for their dinner parties and cheese tastings. Five or so workers were helping the customers in front of me and they quickly took orders, cut and wrapped their cheeses, then sent them on their way to the cash register to pay. I looked around a bit before I got into the line.
Aesthetically, this store felt more like a supermarket with glass display cases showing off the succulent variety of cheeses. The smell was less cheesy in here, perhaps due to the glass cases. As in all fromageries I’ve visited, there was a selection of other dairy products: yogurt, butter, cottage cheese (a real rarity in France), and crème fraîche, among others. They offered an array of wines that could be perfectly paired with each and every one of the cheeses in the store. I looked at the little goat cheeses shaped in hearts and stars and it was my turn to order. A friendly but business-like woman took my order and I told her the five cheeses I wanted. She told me that they didn’t have any of the Idiazabal and directed me to the tubs of Brocciu so I could select one. She took my list behind the counter to cut portions of the remaining three. Soon I was handed my receipt and was directed to pay at the checkout counter.
The first cheese I tasted was Manchego. This is a famous Spanish cheese from La Mancha region in central Spain, home to Don Quixote. Miguel de Cervantes even mentions it in his classic work of literature. It’s a D.O. certified cheese, which is the Spanish version of the AOC; the cheese must be made entirely of milk from the Manchega breed of sheep. It has been produced for thousands of years on the Iberian Peninsula, using the same production method the whole time.
The traditional method of producing it called for pressing it into plaited grass baskets at the curd stage or before it gets aged. Today, it’s put in a special mold designed to leave the pattern of grass in the rind of the cheese. It can be aged for three different lengths of time to produce three different varieties: fresco, aged for two weeks; curado, aged for three to six months; and viejo, aged for one year. The texture firms up and the flavor becomes stronger and sharper as the cheese ages. The Manchego that I tried was curado. I found it to be light in flavor, slightly salty, and almost like Parmesan but sheepier. That sheepy quality is not unpleasant but it’s different for someone who is used to eating cow’s milk cheeses. It’s got a tang to it and its unique and scarce qualities reminded me of being out in the country.
Next was Ossau-Iraty, a French cheese produced in the French Basque Country and the Béarn, both in the Pyrenees Mountains on the border of Spain. These two areas neighbor each other: the Ossau Valley in the Béarn and the hills of Iraty in the French Basque Country. They have made cheese in this region since Neolithic times but only recently has this cheese been specifically named and categorized. In 1980 it received its AOC label. Previous to this, the cheeses made in this area were called by all different names. Similar to how “a rose by any other name is just as sweet,” Ossau-Iraty by any other name is just as good.
Its origins are steeped in legend, as the credit for its invention goes to Aristaeus, the shepherd son of the god, Apollo. The impeccable taste gives reason to this legend. The aroma is very sweet and delicate; the first bite, heavenly. This cheese is a bit less firm than Manchego and creamier in texture. The flavor is similar to Manchego but it’s salty with an earthy aftertaste. Both of these two firm cheeses are good for sheep novices to try, as they are mild and delicate, but also flavorful. I would recommend eating these two by themselves or with a drizzle of honey.
Moving on from Sheep Cheese 101: the Basics, we come to the first lesson in Sheep Cheese 102: Brocciu. This is a very fresh cheese produced on the island of Corsica, usually eaten at only a few days old, though it can be ripened for up to a month. When this AOC cheese is this fresh, it has the texture of Italian Ricotta. It’s extremely creamy and slightly sweet with a strong milky flavor. It might look like boring cottage cheese but there is nothing bland about Brocciu. It can be used in recipes that normally call for Ricotta or eaten on its own as a dessert with a drop of honey or spoonful of jam.
Finally, I tasted Roquefort, a very famous cheese. It’s produced, according to AOC regulations, in the Combalu caves in Southwestern France. It’s so well-regarded that Pliny the Elder mentioned it in Chapter XI of his Natural History. This cheese is the stuff of legends. The story goes that a shepherd was just about to tuck into a meal of bread and cheese when he saw the most beautiful woman. He was so enchanted that he dropped his food to follow her and, upon his return months later, found the cheese to be covered in mold. I guess he was hungry after his quest and ate it anyways. He was amazed with how delicious it was and presumably set out to recreate the delicious accident. Thus creating Roquefort cheese.
This amazing cheese was even used in medicine. Before the discovery of penicillin by Alexander Fleming, shepherds would pack this cheese into wounds to prevent infections. The naturally occurring Penicillium Roqueforti found in the area and in the cheese worked but it probably didn’t smell too good. And it was probably difficult to let such great cheese go to waste in a wound, instead of in someone’s mouth. It’s creamy in texture but tangy and salty in flavor. It’s even a bit raunchy and smoky. I wouldn’t want to be on this cheese’s bad side because Roquefort means business. For all fans of blue cheese, you have got to try it.
The difference between sheep’s milk cheeses and cow’s milk cheeses is clear. The distinct tang of sheep’s milk differentiates it from our familiar cow’s milk cheeses but both are very good in their own way. Now, all that’s left is goat’s milk, the final category of cheese in this cheese hunt.
Read Part I of Cheese Hunt (Cow’s milk cheese) here.