Until about 25 years ago, sheep outnumbered people 22 to 1 in Kiwiland. In fact, the very idea of making cheese with sheep’s milk was concerned laughable. I remember being interviewed by legendry Radio NZ presenter Wayne Mowatt about a trip to Spain, where I visited some Spanish sheep’s milk cheesemakers.
I tried everything from hard, slightly oily manchego made from the ancient La Mancha breed, to La Serena from Extremadura, an area of extreme temperatures where the robust Merino produce rich, sweet, aromatic, nutty milk.
Straight after the interview, I received a call from a farmer near Dunedin asking me about the feasibility of making cheese with sheep’s milk in New Zealand.
Recognising the huge industry potential, he set up a private quarantine station, imported East Friesians from Sweden and in March 1996, sold his first 40 rams. Today, there are now 8 breeders, around 5,000 East Friesian-cross ewes and 10 cheesemakers making over 40 different cheeses between them, from feta-style to huge 12kg wheels.
With the lambing season now in full swing, the milk is flowing. There's no better time than spring to discover some of these remarkable cheeses.
Just Ewe Farmhouse
Type: Hard cheese
Cheesemaker Cathy uses the milk of 100 East Friesians, raised by husband Rod, to make this lovely farmhouse cheese a buxom, sunshine yellow. Smooth and dense at about 4 months old, the cheese becomes more dense and grainy as it ages, similar to a parmesan.
Mercer Cheese, Sheep Gouda
Type: Hard cheese
No one can make milk sing like cheesemaker Albert Alferink. When he combines his classic gouda recipe with local ewes' milk, the result is another award-winning cheese. Nutty, smooth and dense with warm, caramel notes playing across the palate.
Pink & White Terraces, Origin Earth Cheeses
Type: Semi soft
Origin: Havelock North
Joanie and Richard, known throughout the Hawke's Bay for their beautiful unhomogenised cows’ milk, also make this deliciously stinky, pink and white ridged, wash-rind cheese that tastes like cheese sauce made with hints of beef broth and dash of sherry. This beautiful cheese is a must for those who like a cheese with attitude.
No Name Cheese, Sentry Hill Organics
Type: Aged Fresh
Origin: Onga Onga – Hawke’s Bay
Cheesemaker Tom nurtures the land and the sheep while PJ takes the milk and with a delicate touch, converts it in to the tastiest little cheese with a soft, crumpled rind, dusted with white or even blue mould. Soft around the edges and slightly chalky inside, this cheese hints of sea breezes, fresh lime, nuts and roast lamb.
Tinui Blue, Kingsmeade Artisan Cheese
Origin: Masterton Wairarapa
Since 1998, artisan cheesemakers Miles and Janet King have been making ewe and cow's milk cheese on the outskirts of Masterton. They have also developed a unique breed of sheep, Dairy Meade, which undoubtedly accounts for the complexity of their Tinui Blue with its dense compact texture, sweet notes and spicy blue streaks.