Sheep milk cheeses, genetics have made great strides

Jan Shepel
Correspondent

Ken Monteleone, owner of the cheese shop Fromagination in downtown Madison, said that what Napa Valley is to wine, Wisconsin is to cheese.

“When I started my cheese shop 15 years ago there were only a few sheep milk cheeses and it has been amazing to see how that has grown over these last years,” he said.

The cheese monger helped the Sheep Dairy Association of Wisconsin (SDAW) celebrate their industry as he served some of the best sheep milk cheese made in the state.

For some people, sheep milk cheese is easier to digest; it possesses higher fat, protein and calcium content compared to cow’s milk cheeses. Cheesemaking innovators are creating new flavors and taste profiles – one he sells is infused with truffles.

“The sky is the limit with creativity,” he added. “And most of the larger cheese companies have some variety of sheep milk cheese.”

Sheep milk contains less water than cow milk and its higher protein and fat levels are more digestible because of short-chain fatty acids, along with vitamins and minerals, he said.

When most people think about sheep milk cheese, Monteleone said, the hard cheeses like Manchego and Pecorino from the Spanish and Italian traditions come to mind.

“We don’t sell that now because there’s so much innovation in Wisconsin’s sheep milk cheeses. Today, there is so much more variety.”

He showcased several sheep milk cheeses at the event – some made by traditional cheese factories and some made by the farmers who milk the sheep. Monteleone, who was a store buyer for years before starting his cheese shop on the square in downtown Madison, said he is grateful to be here.

MORE: Sheep claiming an important role in dairy production in Wisconsin

“Wisconsin is filled with tradition – the way cheesemakers and farmers work together. Wisconsin is very special. There’s a lot of passion, tradition and innovation.”

Shepherds got the chance to taste Sid Cook’s Carr Valley cheese called “Marissa”, named after his daughter and made in Mauston. Monteleone also offered samples of Bob Wills’ Cedar Grove “Donatello”, which is modeled after a Pecorino.

Monteleone said that the silver lining to the pandemic for his shop is that it is now difficult to import many fancy cheeses from Europe so he is thrilled to offer the wide assortment of cheeses made in Wisconsin – like the many sheep milk cheeses the group sampled.

Visitors also tasted Phlox Farms’ sheep milk cheese, made by the Eckerman Family in Antigo from milk they take from their own flock of ewes. Their 2019 “Ewemazing” is their original recipe and recently placed third in the World Dairy Expo Dairy product contest.

Landmark Creamery cheesemakers showcased their washed-rind Basque-style cheese and Tony Hook of Hook’s Cheese Company in Mineral Point brought one of several sheep milk cheeses he makes – “Little Boy Blue.”

Honoring sheep dairy pioneer

During their gathering, the shepherds honored dairy sheep pioneer Dave Thomas, who had the idea of bringing dairy sheep to Wisconsin in 1991. Thomas, now retired, was then the University of Wisconsin sheep specialist. Brian Michielson of the SDAW said that along the way Thomas had mentored nearly every farmer who now milks sheep in the state, adding that Thomas was the perfect recipient for the association’s distinguished service award.

Retired University of Wisconsin sheep specialist Dave Thomas was honored by the Sheep Dairy Association of Wisconsin for his work in helping get the industry started in the state. At one time the University had a dairy sheep station near Spooner that served as an incubator for dairy sheep entrepreneurs. When that station closed, sheep dairy farmers started the association (www.sheepdairywi.com) to help bolster the budding industry.

Thirty years ago there were no U.S.-made sheep milk cheeses to be found anywhere. Now, it’s possible to go into grocery stores and find those specialty cheeses; consumers can most likely also find out what farm the milk came from, he said.

Thomas said he shared the honor with Yves Berget, who worked with the sheep at the Spooner Station, which was dedicated to the production of milk from sheep.

“He was one of the main people getting sheep milk marketed in Wisconsin,” Thomas said. He also credited the Center for Dairy Research for jumping in and helping develop new cheeses.

Thomas was also cited for getting the Great Lakes Dairy Sheep Symposium started and for helping bring better-milking sheep – East Friesians – into the state from Canada to help boost milk production. It was some of the best-milking of those East Friesian ewes that formed the female side the Assaf crossbreds now filing through the parlor at Ms. J and Co.

For more on the hosts of the SDAW event, visit www.msjandco.com and to learn more about the dairy sheep association, visit www.sheepdairywi.com.