Thanks to the many traditional European, especially Basque, cheeses made from sheep milk I’ve long known the magic that the milk of a humble ewe can impart in cheese. The Europeans have known this, known it for many centuries. Ossau Iraty, Pecorino Abbaye de Belloc, Fiore Sardo, Berkswell… and of course, true Roquefort. I love them all. Truly, never met a sheep milk cheese I did not like. It is with thanks to the very small but growing number of American cheesemakers utilizing the milk of these squat fuzzy ruminants, that we can now enjoy more and more fine American artisan and farmstead cheeses with the same deep, rich and healthful profiles of their European forefathers.
The reasons for the relative paucity of sheep milk cheeses made in America are many:
- lack of tradition: we haven’t 10,000 years of sheep milk cheese making in our young country’s heritage
- lack of the right geography: think of where Ossau Iraty originates. Imagine the Basque Pyrenees, or dusty, hot Sardinia. It’s not Missouri.
- Then there is volume and yield. While the milk of the sheep by the liter yields more cheese than goats or cattle due to high concentrations of solids, sheep in general give far less milk. It takes a lot of sheep and a lot of grazing and a lot of labor to produce a very small amount of cheese.
But what happens when talented farmers find the perfect land, the perfect breed for that land and roll up their sleeves to have a go with sheep milk?
Exhibit A: Kinderhook Creek:
Back a few decades now, a young Tom Clark took his Hampshire sheep to the Dutchess County Fair in upstate New York. He came away with a blue ribbon and told a local newspaper reporter when he grew up he wanted to raise a flock.
But he didn’t. Not at first. Not for many years. But forward to1993 and he had the means to purchase 600 acres in Old Chatham, NY, restore the farm and start a flock. 150 ewes and a few East Friesian rams in the beginning; now, more than 1000 of the breed make Old Chatham Sheepherding Company the largest sheep dairy in the country.
Yet, even at that volume, the amount of cheese they produce is significantly less than they’d do from cattle. They actually gave up on cheese altogether for a brief period a few years ago, turning their attention to a growing sheep yogurt business. Happily, they have returned sheep milk cheese to production with Camembert styles, a Roquefort which I’ll review this month and fresh ricotta.
I’ve oft-repeated here in this blog my general indifference to most Camembert-style cheeses made in America. While I have had very few raw-milk European originals across the pond, They have each, to a cheese, been generally superior in flavor. Richer, more complex, more… oomph. In America, cheesemakers must age any raw milk cheese past 60 days… that throws any young, ripened raw milks out the window. As a result too many American varieties seem to settle for “It’s the best we can do” and the result is mild, dull, and the ubiquitous “tastes like white mushrooms”. Not exactly an exotic flavor profile. Add to it a seeming mono-culture in, well, cultures used to make the cheese and the results are… yawn.
Then there is Kinderhook Creek. Could it be that simply using sheep milk is enough to change my mind? The particular wheel in most of these pics was made right at the end of August; at about four weeks aged this cheese, straddling the mid-point boundary between young and well-aged, is almost perfect in ripeness. A dense, fudgy interior surrounded in a just-getting runny cream, shrouded in a bloomy rind. Aged longer, up to two months, the cheese really begins to break down into a richer, more savory and certainly oozy, spreadable treat.
On the nose, a middle-aged wheel smells of fresh spring water, of fresh dairy. Muted to be sure; bright and milky nonetheless. The flavor beneath the rind hints at where the cheese is headed with more age. More savory, meaty almost. There’s not a hint of the sheepy, lanolin qualities that arise in hard aged cheeses but the sense of fresh farmyard is there and pleasingly so. Overall, it’s a gentle flavor that is subtly complex at this stage. What is gladly missing is that generic flavor common to most American cheeses in this style. Bravo!
When you purchase a wheel of Kinderhook Creek, you can check the make date on the back (year-week#-day of week#) to assess maturity; but you can also just apply a little pressure: if the whole cheese is quite firm- you’ll probably want to age it a bit more. Just another week in the fridge can make quite a difference. If you need it riper the day you buy- ask your cheesemonger for something older, it will yield more under pressure as it ripens. At around eight weeks, you’ll likely have a gooey, sheepy spread. If it at all smells strongly of ammonia, like the sheep that insists on getting trough the fence, you’ve gone too far. A little ammonia odor is not necessarily bad, it’s part of the aging and often will just blow off as the cheese breathes when opened and left at room temperature.
Here’s another wheel, now seven weeks old and oozing with savory depth, new-found sweetness and a bit of nuttiness.
Old Chatham recommends pairing a grassy Sauvignon Blanc, Champagne, wheat beer or mild Belgian white ale. I’d concur- but a dry sparkler works here too. And I’m really into soda pairings right now. Fentiman’s “Victorian Lemonade” is brilliant here.
Cheese: Kinderhook Creek
Where: Old Chatham, NY
Milk Type: sheep (pasteurized)
Texture: dense and fudgy center with a gradually runnier paste below the rind as it ages
Format: 14oz wheel
Tasting notes: Younger wheels – fresh dairy, spring water, more savory and meaty along the rind. Older wheels – richer, sweeter and more savory yet still mild.