My obsession with the movie Gladiator and my love of cheese were bound to collide (right?). The missing link is a raw sheep's milk cheese hailing from Kiscoty, Alta., recently named one of Calgary's "25 Best Things to Eat." The full-flavoured, tangy and addictive pecorino is made at the Cheesiry by Rhonda Headon who apprenticed in Tuscany, on a little farm near Pienza (a short distance from Montepulciano). The fields across from the farm were the location for the final sequences in the film where Roman General Maximus (Russell Crowe) imagines himself striding through golden fields to meet his family as he lies dying. Almost as importantly, it is an area famous for its pecorino di Pienza, a cheese made from the raw milk of sheep that graze on the flora that grows in the unique clay soil.
Headon, who initially travelled to Tuscany in 2007 as part of her 30th birthday celebration, says that you can walk down the streets in Pienza and smell the cheese. Before her trip, she had never tasted a sheep's milk cheese, but she became fascinated with the cheese-making process when she discovered a small farm where some of the traditional wheels were being made. Soon after returning, she quit her job and gave up her condo to return to the small farm as an apprentice.
Even with her newly acquired skills Headon never imagined she'd start a cheese business, but with her boyfriend's (now husband's) support, she began to make pecorino. She remembers the joy of tasting her early versions and thinking, "wow, this tastes like theirs does."
Though the Cheesiry cannot sell their raw milk cheese as young as it is consumed in Italy (in Canada raw milk cheese must be aged 60 days) Headon's young cheeses are two to five months old, the six to nine months are considered mature and she is also aging some wheels to a year. With both the young and older version you get full, layered flavours – the nutty and sweet notes typical of sheep milk that transforms into a mellower tang with more savoury, meaty notes as they age. Headon makes flavoured versions including a very tasty herbs de Provence style.
Headon attributes the complex, characteristic flavours in her cheese to the milk that is single-sourced from a herd of about 120 ewes belonging to her husband's family farm. Springtime means ramping up for another round of cheese-making as sheep produce milk from early April to October.
Then they pass the long winters kicking back, watching Gladiator and dreaming of those tasty Tuscan fields. Or at least that's my plan till spring arrives.
The Pecorino is available at local fine food stores or you can contact The Cheesiry at thecheesiry.com
Sue Riedl blogs about cheese and other edibles at cheeseandtoast.com.