Abbaye de Belloc- Finding Comfort in Fermented Sheep's Milk
Sometimes, after a long day of tasting wine, eating artisan cheese, talking about new and novel cheeses, and slicing the said sophisticated pieces of fermented milk for others (following the one-for-them/one-for-me rule), I like to return back to my comfort cheese- the Basque Abbaye de Belloc. This is the French cheese that got me into sheep's milk.
Now, I love all styles, but sheep's milk cheese is likely my favorite cheese genre. I love sheep's milk's buttery, sweet, rich, spicy notes. But back when I first started eating cheese, my dear friends, I leaned towards the more mild sheep's milk cheeses. It's true. Maybe you were the same. It's a common progression- start light, then, later, reach deeper. You hear a similar story in wine- people tend to lean on the fruit-foward, smooth finish, friendly styles and work their way towards the high-acidity, more complex, even funky wines.
The first sheep's milk cheese that I fell in love with (this was back when sheep's milk dairies numbered under 1 or 2 in Cali) was Abbaye de Belloc. It's rich, creamy, tastes of brown butter and caramel, and is as comforting as being swaddled in a towel fresh from the dryer. It's also good for sheep's cheese novices because underneath all that butter and sweetness, it has a little of that sheep meatiness that sometimes people need a little time to learn to love. Abbaye helps edge them in.
What does the sweetness come from, you ask?
Among other things, the high quality milk, and the washing and cooking of the curds. After cheesemakers have seperated the curds from the whey, they can do a number of things. Washing, or rinsing, the curds with warm water rids the curds of some of their lactose, which will later turn into lactic acid. Many Basque cheesemakers wash their curds. Cheddar cheesemakers, on the other hand, actually let their curds sit to develop more lactic acid to increase sharpness in their cheese. If you wash some of the lactose off early on, you limit how sharp your cheese can become. Even though "washing" doesn't increase the actual residual sugar in the cheese, the cheese ends up tasting sweeter. With Abbaye, they also cook the curds at low temperatures. This helps to sweeten the milk by slowly caramelizing the sugars (lactose). These three things make for a lovely, friendly, comforting sheep's milk cheese.
I love eating this cheese with Pinot Noir- domestic styles, because they're rich like the cheese, but a more robust wine works too, like a Madiran from the Pryenées region. A fuller-bodied Chardonnay, white Rhone or Champagne also scores big points.
As for eating- bring to room temperature and just go at it. Slice thin. Doesn't need any condiments, but it sure does make one of the best mac n' cheeses and grattins I've ever had. It melts like a dream. As might your heart when you dig in.
What's your comfort cheese, and did you have a specific cheese that showed you the beauty of sheep's milk?