Last month, at the California Artisan Cheese Festival, I ran into Liam Callahan, cheesemaker and part-owner at Bellwether Farms in Sonoma County. Callahan told me he was reluctantly raising the price on his cheeses, and not by a little bit. His margins were too slim, especially on his aged sheep’s milk cheeses (San Andreas and Pepato; he also makes a basket-drained sheep ricotta). Each pound of the aged cheeses contains $10 worth of sheep’s milk—“before I ever touch the milk,” says Callahan. “Before I make it into something good or bad, or do any sales support.”
Add production costs, a distributor’s markup and the retail markup, and it’s easy to see why domestic sheep’s milk cheeses can top $40 a pound. So why isn’t Manchego more expensive, or France’s Ossau-Iraty or Tuscan pecorino—all of them made entirely with sheep’s milk?
Callahan’s answer that day shed a lot of light on this pricing disparity. He elaborated in a follow-up phone call.
Many consumers don’t realize the big price differential between cow’s milk and sheep’s milk, says Callahan. In a cow’s milk cheese, the milk alone might account for $2.50 to $3 of the per-pound price. American sheep-cheese producers pay far more for their primary ingredient.
Europe’s sheep cheeses cost less because the European ewes are more productive. From the same amount of feed, they yield two or three times as much milk as American breeds. European breeders, with government help, have achieved these improvements in dairy sheep genetics. “The highly improved animals in European sheep dairies frankly just put ours to shame,” says Callahan.
Dairy-sheep owners like Callahan would eagerly import these improved breeds, but the USDA won’t allow it. The agency has restricted live-sheep imports for more than a century, says Callahan, to protect American flocks from disease. Even semen is verboten. Callahan argues that it should not be so difficult to certify individual sheep as disease free and then give them a passport. The USDA says otherwise.
“Part of the challenge is that it’s a two-way exchange,” says the cheesemaker. “The donor country has to jump through some hoops that, in all likelihood, they feel are stupid.
And they don’t have much interest in spreading these super-valuable genetics. They’d rather sell us cheese.”
The Dairy Sheep Association of North America has recently scored a tiny victory, enabling the import of sheep semen from England. “To call that a glimmer of hope is too hopeful,” says Callahan. It’s the improved French breeds he covets, but maybe the British genetics are a foot in the door. “If we can show (imports) can work and be safe, it will really impact the cost of milk and sheep cheese won’t have to be $40 a pount retail.”
Water buffalo produce milk so rich, it makes cow’s milk taste like water. Churn that bufala cream into butter and you have an amazing ingredient for baking. Casa Madaio’s new Tozzetti with bufala butter are like savory biscotti or shortbread, crumbly, buttery and lightly salted. Serve with wine or cocktails and a platter of salumi. 300-gram box, about $10. Look for Tozzetti at these retailers.
San Francisco: Cheese Plus; Haight Street Market; Say Cheese
North Bay: Atelier by JCB (Yountville); Cheese Shop of Healdsburg; Dean & Deluca (St Helena); Harvest Market (Novato); Ranch Market Too (Yountville); Sonoma Market
East Bay: Star Grocery (Berkeley)
Gold Country: Sutter Creek Cheese Shoppe
Los Angeles: Cheese Addiction; DTLA Cheese; FanciFull Gift Baskets; Joan’s on Third; Urban Radish; Wally’s Liquor
Beyond California: Cheesemongers of Santa Fe; Delaurenti (Seattle)