Thursday, 23 February 2012

Sheeps Cheese

I've managed to brave the cold air and sow some turnip, radish and carrot under glass in the garden. Despite frosty nights, we usually have enough to harvest in the garden right up till asparagus time in April but March and April plan on being lean this year, as nothing has survived the unnaturally cold winter that has befallen us. Even the pumpkins and squash, supposedly protected in the barn under wraps of straw have suffered and are now helping feed pink, compost  worms. Beetroots have been drained of their sweetness and winter radishes are soggy and tasteless. Even on the local markets, winter vegetables are scarce as the spinach was frozen to a cold death and greens would be so very welcome right now. I dream of turnip tops and that is what I hope to have under my chicken and thrush protected glass contraption very soon...

Yesterday, we went to collect our monthly cheese supply from the Erbins in Angous. For generations the same family have raised their sheep for spring lamb and milk and make what we think is the most fruity and grassy cheese, one can find, to sell exclusively at the local markets. 

Papa Pierre,  his two sons, Michel and Benat work together on the farm, sowing the grand roux corn, sunflower seeds and grass that will nourish the sheep and make their milk rich and creamy for cheese. From now until Autumn,  they sell a greuil that is the mountain equivalent of fresh italian ricotta  but pleasantly lumpy and light with a naturally sweet aftertaste. We eat it as we would a yoghurt with fruit compotes, fresh strawberries or honey and often as a garnish for a rustic vegetable soup. The cheese itself is best young when we still taste the grass and meadow flowers. Later, when more mature, its our local alternative to a parmesan or pecorino.
The sheep are still kept indoors for most of the day, feeding on their hay and sunflowers seeds until the grass starts growing and they can be left to themselves in the meadows. In  June, all the family and animals leave together for the high mountain pastures where the sheep are free to roam and nibble contentedly on wild flowers and rich summer grasses. Pierre and his patou mountain dog will stay with them throughout the longer lazy days and continue making an "estive" cheese, that tastes even more blossomy.

Their patou sheepdog has no name, no contact with humans so should never be caressed or petted so he bonds as closely as possible with his sheep family. He is not a herd dog but a brave and vigilant guardian of the the flock which he stays with night and day, protecting by dissuasion his adopted family from feral dogs, humans and bears. Of course, I went to pat him and received a look of total stupefaction from this intelligent animal who must see us humans as lesser beings than his woolly family.  

The farm chickens hop along the backs of the feeding sheep looking for room to lay an egg in the best spot. Its lambing season and twins were born just before our arrival and are already solid on their feet and feeding from their tired but upright mother.
Julian, Michels young son is considering whether he will become a cheesemaker or cheese affineur in his adult life. One thing is sure, is that he is the cutest, sweetest farm guide we have yet met. 

The cheese is brined and dried on wooden palettes in the saloir and stamped with their horned family symbol. Once mature, it is sold Saturdays by either Pierre or Michel at Sauveterre market. This family is the team of the century!

Recipe :  how to eat Erbin's cheese....!


  1. perhaps your most beautiful post this far...
    how it makes me long for all the basque cheeses i became accustomed to
    and for mamia..which i don't know if you have there?
    a sheep cheese, almost like yogurt,sold in terra cotta pots, with a burnt stone thrown in to add a smoky flavour.
    although it is cold inspires posts like these!

  2. What a beautifully chronicled story! The pace of photographs and text had me spellbound (love the black and white portraits), and just the slightest bit jealous of your monthly cheese adventure...

  3. Mamia is still around but Alain Domini's yoghurts beat them all. I did a post on them sometime last Spring and they have to be the best of all. He milks his brebis individually by hand and then makes a yoghurt to die for during the months they produce babies. One day you have to try this....

  4. Thankyou Lily - I love my cheese day outings too. I even went again today to collect my first spring lamb...

  5. Bonjour,

    Je suis tombée sur votre Blog un peu par hasard... et quelle bonne surprise !!
    Vos photos sont souvent très belles, mais dans cet article, je les trouve magnifiques (surtout la 3eme avec la tête de mouton !!).
    Continuez de sublimer ainsi notre beau métier de paysan.

    Maider Etchart