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The Chef Who Cried Sheep

A friend of mine just forwarded an article by Benjamin Phelan entitled “Others’ Milk” which asks the question “Why don’t we consume dairy products from mammals that aren’t cows?” In this piece I came across a paragraph that captured my attention:

“The sheep people are a weird bunch,” says one chef, who wanted to remain anonymous so as not to offend his favorite cheesemaker. “Sheep are difficult to raise, and fickle. You don’t get much yield, and the cheese isn’t that popular, so you’re talking about an eccentric person. It’s very difficult.”

Though much of what that chef is saying may be true, the part about sheep cheese not being popular is so wrong! I mean: who does not like Manchego?

In all the years that I have observed people assessing a selection of cheeses, the sheep varieties are almost always their favorites. Maybe that unnamed chef does not care for sheep cheeses, and admittedly, he is not entirely alone. The brebis (French for sheep) cheeses tend to be highly aromatic, yet pleasurably so. That aroma may be full, comprising hints of olive oil, grass, meat, and occasionally, they can be a bit fishy. The high concentrations of short chain fatty acids contribute mightily to those big aromas, as well with the high protein contents in sheep milk.

One cause for that perceived lack of popularity could be the relative cost of sheep cheeses; they are usually more expensive than goat cheeses, which are themselves generally higher than cow cheeses.

Why the higher prices?

As the chef pointed out: the yields are low, far lower than cow, and they are somewhat lower than goat yields too. Some cheese makers carefully consider crafting cheeses from sheep milk. Low yield (which is attributed less milk each milking, and to shorter lactation cycles) is only part of the problem. The animals also have to be sheared from time to time. With low yields and the extra care required, there is also the matter of dealing with several more animals (each with its own issues) to deliver the equivalent volume of milk as one cow. Keeping in mind that the sheep milk itself has more solids than goat or cow, that smaller volume of milk will produce more cheese, ounce for ounce. It is sometimes said that sheep milk wants to be cheese, or that it is closer to being cheese.

Actually, the number one no-no for cheese customers is goat. Too many people can’t get their goat. One quality the sheep cheeses share with the goats is high concentrations of short chain fatty acids, the ones that give added aromas, some of them a bit animal. The sheep milk has a little extra butyric acid, a short chain fatty acid that gives them an advantage in the aroma/flavor department. The overall aroma/flavor of sheep milk cheeses are almost universally enjoyed.

There is also the elevated conjugated linoleic acid content available in sheep milk cheeses that should be considered, that fatty acid that has been shown to be an effective cancer fighter and weight reducer.

Weird bunch, are we?


Max McCalman

Spread the curd!
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