Spotlight on Cheese: Pyrenees-style Brebis Cheeses

Battenkill Brebis, made in Shushan, NY, is a sheep’s milk cheese made in the French Pyrenees tradition.

The cheeses from the South of France have been made in this way for over four thousand years. The oldest known version is Roncal which comes from the Basque region in Northern Spain. Battenkill Brebis, like the sheep’s milk, name controlled cheese Ossau-Iraty from the Pyrenees, has a slightly higher moisture content than Roncal. This style of cheesemaking became of interest to American cheesemakers after Vermont Shepherd, founded by Cindy and David Major began making perennial, award-winning cheese in 1990. They were the first U.S. cheesemakers to construct a natural cheese cave, which they built in the side of hill on their Vermont farm. They studied brebis cheese making in the Pyrenees among skilled cheesemakers and brought a grand tradition to the States. Many Vermont sheep’s milk cheesemakers apprenticed and produced cheese for VT Shepherd. This made them pioneers in the American cheesemaking business, educating cheesemakers and sustaining public interest in Pyrenees cheeses.

Whole wheel of Battenkill Brebis

Continuing in this American cheesemaking tradition, Karen Weinberg makes her award winning Battenkill Brebis and Frere Fumant (a smoked version). She has just released the first wheels of Battenkill Brebis of the year. This young version of the aged sheep’s milk cheese comes from the earliest milk of the Spring and is aged three months. The character will change throughout the year as the cheese ages longer and new wheels are made from milk of later pastures.

 

These wheels have a rich texture because of the high butterfat content of sheep’s milk. The flavor profile is nutty with delicate notes of pasture “flora”—the wild grasses, herbs, and flowers of the Spring pasture (this flavor can change slightly throughout the year, depending on the perennials on which the animals graze). The cheesemaker, through the ripening process, harmonizes these natural flavors to create a good salt balance and a good tasting cheese. This cheese has been a recent winner at the American Cheese Society annual competition and featured as the Spring 2010 centerfold cheese in Culture Magazine.

It is traditional to pair Pyrenees cheeses with locally produced cerise noir (black cherry) or fig preserves or a dark honey. It is also delicious with toasted nuts. A classic wine pairing is Madiran or Cahors (same grape as Malbec) which are both made in the Pyrenees region of France.

Sources:

Orloff, Paige Smith. “On the Make with Battenkill Brebis” Culture Magazine. Spring 2010, 56.

Roberts, Jeffrey P. The Atlas of American Artisan Cheese. Vermont: Chelsea Green Publishing Co., 2007.

National Dairy Month, New York State, and the Plight of the Small Farm

June is National Dairy Month, a time that America has set aside to celebrate the bounty of milk produced across the country. Summer months experience a surplus of milk after the brief Spring months of live births and the coming in of the milk. At this time animals are pastured and milked twice a day. At The Cheese Traveler, we love cheese and celebrating all things cheese-related. Milk is the number one ingredient in the cheesemaking process along with salt, culture, and rennet. It is also the official beverage of New York State. In our research on the history of National Dairy Month, we had some surprising discoveries.

The auspicious date – 1937, the first “National Milk Month” later coined in 1939 “National Dairy Month”– coincides with one of the largest labor strikes in New York State history – that of the Dairy Farmers’ Union. As milk production increased with the aid of mechanical and scientific advancements in the early decades of the twentieth century, the depression era significantly decreased the demand for milk and dairy products. Moreover, the cost of transportation of milk increased. Retailers and large scale cooperatives responded by slashing prices, engaging in a price war, and developed a monopoly in the state undercutting the cost of production for small, family farms. So, as the National Milk Month campaign advertised at local shops to increase the demand for a surplus supply of milk, farmers were waging a battle on the farm front to stabilize prices on milk, respond to the increased cost of production, and secure their small farms.

The Dairy Farmers’ Union strike was not the first dairy strike in New York State, nor the first instance of corruption in New York’s dairy industry. In 1858, the “swill milk” scandal of watered down, contaminated, or doctored milk was uncovered in New York City which necessitated standardized practices in the industry for public health safety. Contaminated and diseased milk from poor milk handling to animal cruelty – such as feeding distilled whiskey mash to cows or lifting and milking a dying cow – was often and unknowingly the cause of transmission of infectious disease.   In 1933 as commodity prices fell, New York State’s milk strikes spread like wildfire and grew quite violent, bringing the state close to marshall law as one New York Times reporter noted. The 1937 strike, following the largest drop in milk prices in fifteen years, was eventually successful, as small family farmers shut down two of the largest milk cooperatives in the state through persistent and surreptitious means, from picketing with long boards with exposed nails to protect their picket lines from anti-strike motorists and greasing the train rails to prevent milk shipment departures from the facility.[1]

Some memory of the battle persists today as small farmers still bemoan the large-scale factories’ hold over pricing and the market. Small scale dairy farming continues to be difficult to near impossible to sustain on only commodity production.

To celebrate National Dairy Month, we at The Cheese Traveler see cheese production as the natural response to summer’s increased milk supply. It takes approximately ten pounds of milk to make a pound of cheese. A gallon of milk is about 8.6 pounds, so to make one lovely ten pound wheel of Madeleine for example, Sprout Creek Farm uses over twelve gallons of goat’s milk. Likewise, cheesemaking has been the historical solution to excess milk supply. Other countries with a long history of incorporating cheese in their diet such as Greece and France experience lower rates of hypertension and obesity in the population than those in the U.S. The health benefits of cheese – offering a high-quality protein as well as calcium, phosphorus, and Vitamin A[2] – provide a strong support for the continued development of cheese production and its ties to local and regional food culture.

In New York State, home of The Cheese Traveler and the third largest dairy-producing state in the country, small farms have turned toward farmstead and artisan cheesemaking as a value-added option to increase their viability. Value-added products are those that take a commodity such as milk and add labor, time, and craftsmanship to it to make it more valuable. The art of cheesemaking adds value in several ways: a low price commodity becomes an economically viable agricultural product, a perishable becomes an “aged” product, saving the cost of freezing or keeping milk cooled through the winter months of low milk production, and a commodity with little variation becomes highly diversified in form, taste, and craft.

The Cheese Traveler is deeply committed to selling the cheeses of these small producers who either use their own milks produced on their farms or use locally sourced milks from natural, grass-fed, pastured, or organically fed goats, sheep, and cows. So, as we commemorate June as National Dairy Month, let us also remember the efforts of our forbears who have fought to make food safe, affordable, and delicious. Cheese is a wonderful addition to any meal and can be added to enhance the flavor of many summer dishes. We have been enjoying the classic Mediterranean beans-n-greens with white beans, radicchio, mizuna, fresh oregano, rosemary, thyme, and garlic scapes, onion, balsamic vinegar; sautéed in butter; finished with olive oil, salt, pepper, and Toma Pepato from Cooperstown Cheese Company.

Ben and Mino enjoying a cheese plate together


[1] Kriger, Thomas J. “The 1939 Dairy Farmers Union Milk Strike in Heuvelton and Canton, New York: The Story in Words and Pictures” The Journal for MultiMedia History. Volume 1 Number 1 ~ Fall 1998

[2]Cheese and Healthy Eating.” Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy® and National Dairy Council. 2011