Manchego. Roquefort. Pecorino. Feta. These vastly different cheeses from different countries have one thing in common – they're all made with sheep's milk. They're also well-known names commonly brought home from the cheese counter, perhaps under the assumption they originate from cows. Sheep's milk remains something of a mystery, unlike goat's milk, which more clearly differentiates itself with its tangy, lemony freshness.
Ewe's milk cheeses offer subtle yet complex flavours that remain mellow and sweet while managing to sidestep a simple, one-note experience. Firm sheep's milk cheeses develop nutty, caramel notes that become piquant and more intense as they age. Ewe's milk is more aromatic than cow milk and you may even detect the aroma of lanolin (the natural oil found in sheep's wool).
According to Elisabeth Bzikot, co-owner of Best Baa Dairy in Fergus, Ont., the hallmark of sheep's milk is its creamy aftertaste. Sheep's milk has a higher fat content than goat or cow. Ms. Bzikot, who takes sheep's milk with her coffee, finds it acts more like light cream. In a cheese it creates a buttery mouth feel.
"Though it's a very rich milk, it goes down easily and is easily digested, " she says. "There's no heaviness." Many customers who are sensitive to cow's milk have made the switch to ewe's milk cheese and yogurt.
Stephanie Clark, an associate professor in the department of food and science and human nutrition at Iowa State University, explains that though the proteins in cow, sheep and goat milk are similar, the chains of amino acids making up the proteins will vary. If you have negative reactions to the protein in cow's milk, it's possible that goat's or sheep's milk protein could differ enough that your body may not see it as an invader. (She does emphasize that lactose does not vary in species, so switching milks is not a solution for people who are lactose intolerant).
All this talk about richness and fat doesn't mean you have to avoid sheep's milk cheese for fear of diet sabotage. Ruth Klahsen of Monforte Dairy explains, "the cheese doesn't end up fattier or higher in fat than cow or goat milk cheese, you're just able to produce more volume of cheese from sheep milk than from the same amount of cow or goat milk." Its yield is about double that of cow or goat due to the higher composition of fat and protein in ewe's milk (though sheep produce less milk overall).
Both Ms. Bzikot and Ms. Klahsen say they've converted many a wary customer to ewe's milk cheese. "We do have something called the 'sheep milk shudder' where people who have decided they don't like goat milk cheese, then think of sheep milk as even stronger," says Ms. Klahsen. "You have to get it into their mouth with a 'I double dare you.' " She stresses that the richness and subtlety of the cheese depends on the quality of the milk.
Firm, aged sheep milk cheeses are always on my top 10 list. Aged Manchego from Spain, France's Ossau-Iraty (my eye-opener to the potential flavours in sheep milk), Quebec's Allegretto or Ontario's Toscano all display the sweet complexity of great sheep's milk cheese.
If I may assign a little bit of homework, an easy way of comparing sheep's milk to cow or goat is to purchase feta made from each type of milk. Both Monforte and Best Baa make their own, and many grocery stores carry different styles, especially in Greek neighbourhoods. Yogurt makes for another good project, but once you've have the naturally thick and creamy sheep's milk version there's no going back. Don't say I didn't warn you.
Sue Riedl blogs about cheese and other edibles at cheeseandtoast.com.