All Mixed Up.
To state the obvious, milk plays a crucial role in determining a cheese's characteristics.
Versatile cow milk produces cheeses with buttery, nutty and/or grassy notes. Goat milk is characterized by an acidic, lemony flavor profile and bright, white color. Sheep milk has limited availability in the U.S., but it's highly sought after because of its rich, indulgent mouthfeel and deep, intense flavor profile. Water buffalo milk, the scarcest in this country, lends grassy, tangy, gamy notes to cheeses.
Mixed-milk cheeses came about because, historically, many Old World farms had mixed herds - some combination of cattle, goats and sheep. Making cheese was the most common way to preserve milk in a world without refrigeration; frugal farmers did not waste anything so they often mixed together whatever milk they had.
Fast forward to contemporary times when mixed-milk cheeses are gaining popularity among cheesemakers, retailers and consumers. According to the American Cheese Society, headquartered in Denver, the number of awards given at its annual competition and judging, has grown from 18 in 2010 to 22 in 2015. No data on the total number of mixed-milk cheeses entered into the competitions was available at press time.
Photo courtesy of Planet Cheese
Bellwether Farms Blackstone is made from cow and sheep milk.
Mixed-milk Cheese 101
Mixed-milk cheeses are growing in popularity, says Janet Fletcher, publisher of Planet Cheese. She attributes it in part to the success enjoyed in the U.S. by Italy's mixed-milk cheeses. In particular she mentions La Tur, a creamy blend of cow, goat and sheep milk from Caseificio Dell'Alta Langa, and Robiola Rochetta, the same cheesemaker's bloomy-rind cheese, also made from cow, sheep and goat milk.
Liz Thorpe, cheese expert and author of "The Book of Cheese," scheduled for publication in spring 2017, concurs and likewise sings the praises of the cheeses from Caseificio Dell'Alta Langa. She also mentions their Robiola Bosina, aka Robiola Due Latte, made from cow and sheep milk. The cheeses started showing up in New York City around 2003-2004, she says, in independent shops with a commitment to carrying high-end cheeses; now they can be found nationally in Whole Foods. And consumers have embraced them.
Among the reasons that cheesemakers have embraced mixed milk is that allows them "to work with more seasonal or limited availability milks. It can extend seasonal production or allow production of larger quantities of cheese," explains Thorpe.
For example, sheep milk is in limited supply. The average dairy cow produces eight gallons of milk per day; the average dairy goat produces three quarts of milk a day; the average dairy sheep produces 1.5 to 2.5 quarts of milk a day. And the duration of lactation lessens from cow to goat to sheep, which places further restrictions on availability. By mixing milks, the cheesemaker can both bring down the price point and up the quantity.
From The Badger State
Sid Cook, the prolific master cheesemaker at the helm of Carr Valley Cheese Co. in La Valle, Wis., began making mixed-milk cheeses in 1997-1998 after he "tried some cheeses a Greek gentleman gave me. He said his grandmother made them and aged them in olive oil." After learning that it was not uncommon for a Greek farm to have cows, sheep and goats, he realized he had access to milk from all these animals.
Cook notes that part of the reason people enjoy mixed-milk cheeses is because they stimulate several parts of the palate. "Sweet, savory and citrusy are detectable on the front of the tongue," he explains. "Cow milk is detectable on the back of the palate." He says he has determined ratios that make sure each milk is detectable in a cheese and all work harmoniously.
Carr Valley mixed-milk cheeses - all of them multi-award winners - include: Airco, Benedictine, Canaria, Gran Canaria, Mellage, Caso Bolo Mellage, Cave Aged Mellage, Menage, Shepherd's Blend, Bessie's Blend and Mobay.
Cook usually introduces one or two new cheeses each year, but has not created in new mixed-milk cheese "in a while" because, he says, "the logistics of getting the right milks at the same time are tricky."
LaClare Farms in Malone, Wis., makes two mixed-milk cheeses - Chandoka and Martone - both of which are a combination of pasteurized cow and goat milk. Martone is surface-ripened, ash-covered and aged for seven to 10 days. Mild and fresh at the beginning, it has a tangy finish.
From The Golden State
Bellwether Farms in Sonoma County, Calif., began making sheep milk cheeses in 1992. Owner and cheesemaker Liam Callahan had wanted to make a mixed-milk cheese for a while, but his aging space was a limiting factor. He needed to make a cheese that would require conditions similar to those of his existing cheeses.
The cheese he created is Blackstone - a semi-firm table cheese made from cow and sheep milk. It's rubbed with black pepper and has some peppercorns in the paste. "The cow milk comes from local Jersey dairies," says Callahan. "We maintain our own flock of sheep but we also buy sheep milk because yogurt demands most of our milk. We have over 300 dairy ewes."
He describes the benefits of mixed milk this way. "Jersey milk has a wonderful mouthfeel and caramel notes. You get more minerality and complexity from sheep milk. Blackstone maintains all the characteristics of both." Although Blackstone contains only 30 to 40 percent sheep milk, tasting feedback has elicited many "I can taste the sheep milk" comments.
Sheep milk's limited availability makes it very expensive, he notes. "It's hard to market a 100 percent sheep milk cheese and sell it for a price that makes up for all the labor and effort that goes into it. We had to make something a little more affordable. Artisan cheeses sell in the $20s, some cheeses are in the $30s. Sheep milk is moving into the high $30s." Blackstone, which is aged from seven to nine weeks, has an SRP of $27 to $29 per pound.
According to Thorpe, some small farms are making extraordinary mixed-milk cheeses in quantities that assure they will remain regional favorites, in much the same way that some European cheeses are available only in specific locales. She calls out Penny Royal Farms in Boonville, Calif., which makes Laychee, a highly seasonal soft and spreadable cheese, from sheep and goat milk. The recipe shifts from March to October to take advantage of milk availability. In March it's made with 100 percent sheep milk and by October 100 percent goat milk. In between, the recipe shifts to include both milks in proportions that invert with the season. "It may be one cheese, but it has dozens of variations. Penny Royal does not want to go national. They can sustain themselves by doing this mixed-milk cheese," says Thorpe.
Fletcher recommends Four Square from Bleating Heart Dairy in Tomales, Calif. Four Square is made from four kinds of milk because cheesemaker Seana Doughty had access to four kinds of milk - cow, goat, sheep and water buffalo. "It's a small 8-ounce cheese made in the style of a Taleggio. She may be the only cheesemaker doing a four-milk cheese," says Fletcher. According to the Bleating Heart website, the raw-milk cheese is made with an equal blend of the four local milks, then it is ripened on redwood planks in the aging rooms for two to three months, where it is washed with a light brine every few days. This square-shaped cheese has an orange rind which contrasts with the "creamy, lip-smacking" ivory paste.
From The Green Mountain State
Blending allows Vermont Creamery, Websterville, Vt., to make Cremont, a goat's milk cheese enriched with cow milk and cream. According to Thorpe, "It opens the door to a new style of cheese. Goat's milk doesn't have the kind of fat to create the kind of mouthfeel cow milk does."
An American original, Cremont is a double-cream cheese with a wrinkled geotrichum rind. The website describes its make process this way: "A special cocktail of yeast and mold are added to create its unique flavor and to coagulate the milk overnight. The fresh curd is shaped by hand and then aged for two weeks to develop the unique cream colored rind and luxurious, smooth interior."
Thorpe notes that the support of retailers is crucial to the survival of several small producers. She mentions Vermont Shepherd in Putney, Vt. Their summer cheese, Verano, is a farmstead cheese made from 100 percent sheep milk; the abundant summer pastures allow production from the flock's milk. The cheese is aged for three to five months and is ripe by August. The winter cheese, Invierno, a blend of sheep milk and cow milk from a neighboring farm, ages for five to nine months and is ready by early winter.
A Word to Retailers
Carr Valley's Cook offers this advice to retailers looking to sell more mixed-milk cheeses. "Sample. You don't necessarily have to tell a customer what it is. Just say, 'We have a new cheese. Would you like to try it?' That can overcome the resistance to goat milk or to not knowing about sheep milk."
Fletcher of Planet Cheese concurs. "Retailers can teach consumers about mixed-milk cheeses. It helps everyone."
A Retailer/Producer Win Win
Chandoka is a part pasteurized cow milk, part pasteurized goat milk cheddar made by Katie Fuhrmann of LaClare Farms, Malone, Wis. A first generation cheesemaker but the second generation on the family goat farm, she became interested in cheesemaking when her family was a milk supplier.
Photo courtesy of Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board
Standard Market has three stores in the greater Chicago area. David Rogers is the stores' maitre fromager affineur, the man behind Standard Market's 5-year-old cheese caves. According to Fuhrmann, "He's a good cheesemonger but his heart has always been in affinage. He wanted to have caves and Standard Market gave him the opportunity."
In 2012, Rogers approached LaClare Farms about aging its award-winning Evalon in the caves. "But," says Fuhrmann, "it's a raw-milk farmstead cheese and we can't ship it over state lines if it's less than 60 days old."
She was working on Chandoka, which is cellar-aged at the farm. LaClare ages 40-pound blocks for four to eight weeks and then sells it precut and wrapped in exact weight 6-ounce pieces, 5-pound loaves and 40-pound blocks. The blocks are aged in plastic bags - a method used for most rindless cheddars - because it controls moisture levels and produces a consistently fruity flavor profile.
Rogers wanted to cave-age the Chandoka and the deal was struck. Fuhrmann makes 22-pound wheels and takes them to Standard Market immediately. Standard Market wraps the cheeses in bandages and cave-ages them for six to nine months. The result is a less moist cheese that has both sweet and mushroom-y flavor notes. "As we get to know the cheese, we're developing a profile," says Alyssa Stone, Standard Market's specialty manager and cheese maven.
She says they have about 90 wheels in the caves now, adding that the ideal aging time for Chandoka is seven to nine months, depending on the batch, although some have gone over a year. "We want to take advantage of the sweet notes."
At Standard Market, the wheels are part of the cut-and-wrap program. Right now Cave Aged Chandoka is selling for $25.99 a pound but when their new standalone aging facility is complete, they will have more capacity and "be able to play with aging times so there will probably be varying prices," explains Stone.
And how is this partnership working out? At the 2015 American Cheese Society Competition, Standard Market Cave Aged Chandoka took first place in American Originals (original recipe from mixed milks) and tied for second place Best in Show.