Cheese Expert's Picks: 10 Essential Sheep Milk Cheeses to Know and Love

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[Photographs: Vicky Wasik]

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All About Cheese

Everything you need to know about eating and cooking with curds

When you're just getting into something like cheese, you need a place to start to start. Those looking for a good general entry point should see my picks of 10 essential cheeses to know and love, a starter pack of incredible cheeses across a wide range of dairy types and styles.

Now it's time to dig a little deeper and explore one of the fundamental building blocks of cheese: the milk that goes into it, and how that milk effects a cheese's taste, texture, and color. For many of us, cow milk is the default cheese dairy, but consider the sheep.

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Sheep milk tastes...sheepy, but it's also good to know that sheep milk has nearly twice the solids (fat and protein) of cow or goat milk. Regardless of a sheep cheese's texture, you can feel the fat in these guys. Opulent and often tangy, sheep cheeses range from subtle and approachable, with an undercurrent of sweetness, to tart and briny, to caramelly and butterscotchy, to piquant and intensely gamey.

All that fat means it's good to take some care with these cheeses. When out at room temperature for half an hour or more, they start to sweat liquid butterfat. It's perfectly fine in terms of flavor, but it can cause the edges to turn dry and waxy, and means multiple trips in and out of the refrigerator can really compromise its texture. I try to eat them on their first run out of the fridge.

Ready to dig in? Here are 10 essential sheep cheeses to look out for on your next trip to the cheese counter.

Brebisrousse d'Argental

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Where it's from: France
Pasteurized
Aroma: Vegetal, wet wool
Flavor: Butter and seawater with a touch of wool sweater
Texture: Like the best Velveeta
Character: Rich
Recommended: Murray's Cheese

This is the cheese for people who want something buttery, soft, and smearable. Pure sheep milk delivers a thick fattiness distinct from cream-enriched double or triple crèmes. Brebisrousse is slick and sweet but briny, with a meatiness that keeps it interesting. A good one to score for those who like their Brie full-powered.

Conventional cheese wisdom tells you that cheeses with orange exteriors have been washed with salt water and have a barnyardy flavor and aroma (see: Taleggio).

Then a cheese like this comes along. Its name, translated from French, means "red sheep." Its color, however, has nothing to do with brine and bacteria, but rather the addition of annatto (aka achiote), a spice with a mild flavor but vivid orange color often used in Mexican cooking. It's a fake-out cheese!

Rivertown from Many Fold Farm

Where it's from: U.S.
Pasteurized
Aroma: Roasted garlic, porcini mushroom
Flavor: Cream, mushrooms, and garlic
Texture: A sticky river of dairy
Character: Decadent
Recommended: Many Fold Farm

The great glory and great frustration of seasonally-produced cheeses is that they are only available for a limited window of time. In this case, that window is restricted by the natural lactation cycle of sheep, which, at Many Fold Farm ("fold" is Old English for "pasture") are rotationally grazed across 50 acres of separate fields from late February until October.

In Rivertown, their grass-fueled milk, naturally double the fat and protein of cow or goat, is minimally handled to produce a sticky river of cheese that approximates the great, savory complexity of traditional French Brie (de Meaux). There's milk and salt and big tastes of mushroom and garlic, each in balance to deliver a tsunami of umami.

Berkswell Exported by Neal's Yard Dairy

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Where it's from: England
Unpasteurized
Aroma: A whiff of fish
Flavor: Strawberry shortcake (spring wheels) or lamby (fall wheels)
Texture: Dense yet powdery
Character: Triscuit cracker
Recommended: Neal's Yard Dairy

Berkswell's production began in the early 1990s, first as a vaguely Caerphillyish recipe, before things evolved to its current barnacle-covered flying saucer shape, a signature of draining the curd in old plastic colanders. Its flavor changes considerably over the course of the year; spring wheels early in the year have the berries-and-cream sweetness of strawberry shortcake, while later-season fall wheels take a distinct savory lamby turn. You may love one season of the cheese and hate the other, and that's a wonder of small-batch farmhouse cheese well worth exploring for yourself.

Pecorino Toscano PDO

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Where it's from: Italy
Pasteurized and unpasteurized
Aroma: Mild, tangy milk
Flavor: Briny tang
Texture: Firm yet creamy and moist
Character: Fresh
Recommended: Murray's Cheese

Commonly sold as "young" Pecorino Toscano, as opposed to the "aged" or, officially, "stagionato" versions, this rindless, white, and moist Pecorino exemplifies the walnutty and tangy simplicity of what briefly aged Pecorino can be. Pecorino Toscano qualifies for DOP/PDO status with a history dating back to Etruscan times, when sheep farming provided a viable use for otherwise useless land. Today, Pecorino Toscano can be made anywhere in Tuscany, as well as parts of Umbria and Lazio.

Matured for a minimum of 20 days, most of what's exported is two to three months old, though Cryovac packaging maintains the cheese's smack of fresh brine. Traditionally the first cheeses of spring are enjoyed with delicate fava or broad beans. My most memorable encounters have been at Tuscan breakfasts, dragging the cheese through brackish chestnut honey in lieu of cream with a small, intense Italian coffee.

Queso Manchego PDO

Where it's from: Spain
Pasteurized and unpasteurized
Aroma: Werther's Original butterscotch candies, peanuts
Flavor: More butterscotch with the possibility of gaminess
Texture: Chunky; oily yet dry
Character: Crowd-pleasing
Recommended: Manchego 1605 and Pondini Imports are two mind-blowing versions

Although Manchego is a regulated cheese, its guidelines are broad enough that its flavor and texture span a huge range. All Manchego must be produced from the milk of the Manchega sheep, and within designated parts of the Spanish provinces of Albacete, Ciudad Real, Cuenca, and Toledo. Additionally, all wheels have a braided basket weave around the outside, meant to evoke the imprint of traditional esparto molds.

From there it's anyone's game. Wheels can be aged from 60 days to 14 or more months; rinds may be treated with wax or other protective substances; milk can be raw or pasteurized; production automated or done by hand. The upshot is this: Manchego is rarely offensive. It's also rarely mind blowing. It's usually quite approachable and snackable, and with increased age comes increased piquancy, spice, and granularity. It's an important cheese to know because it's become the reference cheese for sheep milk in the U.S. I've found a growing commonality in flavor, a sweet, candied undertone that, I believe, has boosted Manchego's popularity enormously. That said, the two brands recommended here are exceptional in their complexity. 1605 has serrano ham-like notes and Pondini's organic Manchego is downright floral.

Queso Roncal PDO

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Where it's from: Spain
Unpasteurized
Aroma: Wooly
Flavor: Lamb chop fat cap
Texture: Pressed and granular
Character: Essentially cheesy
Recommended: Murray's Cheese

The first Spanish cheese to receive PDO status (in 1981), Roncal is now made by only five producers. Milk must come from the latxa sheep, a breed native to Navarra and Basque Country. Fluffy and longhaired, the breed is used primarily for milking, and grazes in the wild, rolling hills of Navarra. Production and aging of the cheese must occur in one of seven municipalities in the Valle de Roncal.

Unlike the better-known Manchego, Roncal has a rough, bark-like rind and shies away from sweet or caramelly flavors. Its character is more rustic, with piquant fruity notes resulting from latxa milk. Roncal is the table cheese of the area, meant for snacking alongside ubiquitous bottles of red wine and earthy hard cider.

Queso de la Serena PDO

Where it's from: Spain
Unpasteurized
Aroma: Vaguely wooly and sour
Flavor: Floral and pleasantly bitter
Texture: Panna cotta
Character: Surprising
Recommended: Murray's Cheese

As its name suggests, Extremadura is a land of extremes, and though agriculture is still one of the region's main industries, the summers can be so punishingly hot and dry that only Merino sheep flourish there. Though the sheep produce a scant third of a liter of milk each day, this milk is spun into one of the most special cheeses on the planet. Coagulated not with rennet but with the thistle-like cardoon, curdled at a low temperature and hand salted, the resulting cheese is a golden, bulging frisbee about three inches tall.

When properly ripe, the cheese is spoonable to the point of liquid. My preferred serving method is to buy an entire two-ish pound wheel, cut the thin, crusty top off, and dunk chorizo and bread directly into the base. The cardoon imparts a bizarre, vegetal, and slightly sour flavor at shocking odds with the pudding-like texture. The cheese is tart, green-tasting, and lush with fat.

Fiore Sardo PDO

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Where it's from: Italy
Pasteurized and unpasteurized
Aroma: A wet, smoldering fire pit
Flavor: Piquant, gamey, and smokey
Texture: Hard and chunky
Character: Big
Recommended: Murray's Cheese

Not to be confused with the PDO cheese Pecorino Sardo, Fiore Sardo includes an additional optional smoking step as part of its ripening process. Made across Sardinia, the cheese traces back to the historically role sheep-farming played across the island, as a way to use marginal slips of land that couldn't support other forms of agriculture. Its name ("fiore" means "flower") refers to the flowering plants that were traditionally used to coagulate the curd of the cheese. These days makers use either lamb or kid (goat) rennet; I've found they yield a more rustic and animal-tasting cheeses than calf rennet versions.

Many brands of Fiore Sardo are semi-firm, vaguely smokey, and generally insipid or inoffensive. But true Fiore Sardo is crackly and flaky—Pondini's is aged four to six months—and the wheels are tacky with lard and reek powerfully of acidic, smoldering wood. Inside is a powerful, sheepy rustic taste overlain with damp, dark smokiness from the bark of local cork trees. It's a cold-and-wet-weather cheese—fortifying and glorious.

Pecorino Romano PDO

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Where it's from: Italy
Pasteurized
Aroma: Sheepy
Flavor: Intensely salty, but with more going on
Texture: Firm and moist but flaky
Character: The Cook's Cheese
Recommended: Forever Cheese

Pecorino Romano is so named because, until the 1950s, it was made exclusively in the countryside of Rome. But in the '50s, the Sardinian president of Italy expanded the cheese's approved production area to include Sardinia. These days, there's only one producer in any of the original four approved provinces of Lazio (Rome) making the cheese.

Pecorino Romano is generally regarded as a cooking cheese. Many say it can be used interchangeably with Parmigiano Reggiano, but this cheese is far more intense and salty than parm, and while it's most often grated, it doesn't need to be. The cheese is salty, so assertive that it almost stings when it hits your tongue—an effect mitigated by carbs like pasta. When I was a kid, at the beach, I used to wash my plum or peach in the surf before eating it. The seawater dip coated each bite with the luminescent brine of the ocean. That's what Pecorino Romano does for fava beans, or pesto, or amatriciana sauce. Eat it straight up and it will burn your face, but pair it properly and it'is a wash of milky sea.

I like Fulvi's Pecorino for a few reasons. First, it's the last Roman maker of a traditionally Roman cheese. Second, it's aged for 10 to 12 months, even though the PDO guidelines mandate a mere six months. The Sicilian and Soprevisana breeds of sheep in Lazio yield less, but richer, milk, and as a result the cheese is firm, moist, and flaky rather than hard, dry and crumbly. It's like Maldon sea salt as opposed to Morton's. On the topic of salt, Fulvi still hand-salts its wheels, allowing dry salt to migrate into the cheese during aging, rather than brining the cheese and sealing its exterior with a crust.

Roquefort PDO

Where it's from: France
Unpasteurized
Aroma: Damp, dark mushrooms and hidden subterranean rivers
Flavor: Sweet, salty cream, mushroom and fruity acid pop
Texture: Like tempered butter
Character: The Champagne of blue cheese
Recommended: Carles, Gabriel Coulet, Le Vieux Berger

Cheese folk fight about Roquefort. "Why buy this cheese?" one person asks. It's consistently one of the most expensive cheeses on any counter because it's subject to a 100% import tax that effectively doubles its price in America. Another answers, wisely, "It's the Champagne of Cheese. You could buy Cava or Prosecco, but if it matters you buy Champagne."

People get Champagne: it means Fancy! Special! You're worth it! Roquefort sends a similar message. Like Champagne, there are a few big name brands that are very pleasant, and many more lesser known brands that can be downright life-changing. A defining characteristic of the cheese is its raw material: only unpasteurized sheep milk that capitalizes on its natural fattiness.

Great Roquefort melts into cream in your mouth, then vanishes. It shouldn't leave little wormy strings of mold, or grainy bits, or salty crystals. It shouldn't be gamy, like rare lamb chops. Its flavors should also be in balance. It should tease you to the moment of thinking it's too salty, and just then, at the very second you're about to diss it, the salt should quiet so you taste sweet cream and then the racing pop of the mold. Layers of mushroom impressions pervade, and then you're left with a whole that is far greater than the sum of its parts.