Most of us will choose a cheese based on its texture, appearance, region and, of course, its flavour. The taste can largely be attributed to the type of animal milk used in its production. This is because the flavour of milk, and therefore cheese, is affected by the breed of cow, sheep or goat from which the milk is sourced, as well as the food it eats, the climate and the health of the herd.
For artisan cheese producers, the subtle differences in flavour are important. The microclimates and terrains of particular regions, known as terroir, impart certain distinctive flavours to cheeses, thereby linking the products to the area in which they are made. These flavours are apparent in artisan cheese where they can flourish because quality cheese can only be made with quality milk.
In this article, we look at how cheese production from different animal milks has evolved, and provide an overview of some of the most popular cheeses produced by each milk type.
Cheese made from cow’s milk
Cow’s milk accounts for a large proportion of the world’s cheese production and there are hundreds of varieties to choose from. It’s used to make some of the most popular cheeses – like Brie, Stilton and Parmigiano Reggiano.
In countries where environmental conditions are suitable for the rearing of cows, such as the UK, the popularity of cows’ milk cheese lies in the fact that common breeds such as Friesian produce a high yield of milk (up to almost 8000 litres per year), enabling faster production of large quantities of cheese.
Breeds of cow with high yields are also used in artisan cheese-making, but are generally used in mass production where subtle differences in flavour are often unrecognisable in mass produced cheese where milk supplies are sourced from many farms and producers take steps to standardise their milk to achieve a consistent end results. That’s one of the reasons why artisan cheese can give you a more interesting cheese tasting experience. There are around 50 breeds of cow which produce milk which is suitable for making cheese, and each produces a slightly different flavour of milk which results in variations in cheese. You get variations between herds too, with the flavour of their milk being affected by the pastures upon which they graze.
Here in the UK, there is a strong heritage of cheese-making using the milk of Jersey and Ayrshire cows, used for producing cheeses such as Sharpham Rustic and Ogleshield, Dunlop and Barwheys Cheddar. The popularity of Jersey milk is down to its creamy nature which is so apparent it can actually be seen in the colour of the pate of the cheese - a rich, warm gold.
While many cheese-specific breeds produce lower milk yields, their cheese is spectacular, bringing well-deserved fame to their countries and regions. For example, the French dictate the exact breed which must be used to create particular cheeses – for example, Montbeliarde cows must be used in the creation of an authentic Mont d’Or.
Cheese made from non-cow milk
The milk from lots of other animals can be used to make cheese, although some are more suitable than others – you would rarely find a cheese maker willing to milk a pig for instance, due to the low yield and the unhelpful temperament of the pig!
While cheese made from the milk of camel or yak is yet to make it onto the counter of a Paxton & Whitfield store, there are certainly plenty of alternatives to non-cow’s milk cheese.
The popularity of goat, buffalo and ewes’ milk cheeses has increased significantly over the last decade or so. This is partly due to education – people are generally positive about the idea of goat or ewes’ milk cheese so will embrace the diversity on offer – but also to the higher awareness of lactose intolerance.
People who are lactose intolerant often look to ewe and goat milk alternatives. Although these milks contain similar amounts of lactose to cow’s milk, the lactose is more easily digestible to the body due to the size of the fat globules.
Buffalo milk cheese is also popular. It is higher in fat than other cheeses which makes it very creamy, but lower in cholesterol.
On the down side, because milk yields are smaller for these animals, the cheeses made from these milks tend to be more expensive.
Cheese made from ewe’s milk
Ewe’s milk cheeses are popular, especially in hotter climates where conditions are more suited to sheep and goats more than cows. The milk has a higher lactose content which gives it a sweeter, much creamier flavour. Traditional breeds used for dairy farming in the UK include the Friesland and the British Milksheep. There are lower yields, around 250 litres on average, and so their milk can be more costly. Its richness means that it is very satisfying and a smaller quantity will satiate the appetite.
Ewe’s milk production also tends to be very seasonal. Unlike cows, sheep do not naturally breed all year round and they therefore have a natural ‘drying out’ period roughly between October and February, so there is no milk available to make cheese. That’s not to say you can’t get ewes’ milk cheeses during this period – if the cheese is aged then it will be available during this time. Alternatively, some good cheeses are made using milk which has been frozen.
A growing number of British cheeses are made using ewe’s milk and they are highly distinctive and well worth a try. Go for Berkswell or Fosseway Fleece if you like hard cheese, or Beenleigh Blue if you like blue cheese.
Cheese made from goat’s milk
There are a large number of traditional dairy goat breeds in the UK, with the most popular being Saanen, British Saanen, Toggenburg, British Toggenburg, British Alpine, Anglo-Nubian and Golden Guernsey.
Because they produce lower milk yields, anywhere between 5000 and 1200 litres per lactation, goat’s cheese still falls behind the volume production of cow’s milk cheese. However, there is still a huge – and growing - variety to choose from.
Of course, there are always versions of the traditional ‘chevre’ to try, often in fat log shapes which lend themselves for slicing and grilling, but also, gooey soft goat’s cheese options such as the Etoile de Gatine and the Eve.
Fresh cheeses are incredibly popular due to their light, citrus appeal, such as Windrush and Cerney Pyramid and there are also a number of hard cheeses to try such as Ticklemore, Dorset Goat or Pennard Ridge.
People often find goat’s cheese too ‘rustic’ in flavour. However, a good goat’s cheese from an artisan cheesemaker should be creamy and fresh, with citrus hints which go beautifully with the natural saltiness of the cheese.
Buy cheese at your nearest Paxton & Whitfield store or browse our online cheese counter to have your cheese delivered direct to your door.