Raw Milk Cheeses*
The internet brings the world together and makes it possible for people to “meet” who otherwise would never have the chance. Recently, through our blog and Twitter, The Lady and I met, Raquel Moran Tellez, the Export Manager for Ilbesa Cheeses.
Ilbesa is located in Benavente, in the Zamora Province of Northwest Spain, near the border with Portugal. Zamora is part of the Castilla y Leon region which is the largest Spanish producer of sheeps’ milk (30%) and sheeps’ milk cheeses (about 20%). This compares to the better known (in the US) La Mancha which produces about 2% of the country’s sheeps’ milk cheeses. There is evidence that sheeps’ milk cheese was being made in the region as far back as the Copper Age (about 4000 years ago). And while Castellano Cheeses don’t have the DO designation at this point; cheeses meeting the requirements carry the “Castellano Cheese” designation which reflects the superior quality of the region’s cheeses. This designation was established in 2010.
After a few emails and tweets, Raquel sent four of the Ilbesa cheeses to us to sample.
First, let me give you an introduction to Ilbesa. The company was founded in 1945 by Domingo Martin, a young cheesemaker with true entrepreneurial spirit. Today, the company is run by his grandchildren and employs 30 people. The company produces four cheeses; three made from sheeps’ milk and one that is a blended-milk cheese. These four cheeses have won more than thirty awards since 2000, including seven this past November at the 2010 World Cheese Awards.
All of their cheeses are Gluten-free and contain neither additives nor preservatives. The youngest cheese made from pasteurized sheeps’ milk cheese has a “Best Before” shelf life of six months. The other three cheeses have a “Best Before” shelf life of one year from date of production.
Ilbesa currently distributes their cheeses throughout Spain via delicatessen shops and top-end restaurants. You can also buy their cheeses through a few supermarket chains. Ilbesa is hoping to expand their distribution into the US this year. After reading our reviews, you can contact Raquel through their website or by leaving a comment below and we will forward the interest to her.
Now, to the good stuff…
Please note: Because Raquel was quite generous and sent 500 grams of each cheese, The Lady enlisted three of her fellow cheesemongers, the Chef at her store and a few of the deli staff to also sample the cheeses and give us their tasting notes.
Young DM Sheeps’ Milk Cheese
The first of the four cheeses we sampled was the young DM Sheeps’ Milk Cheese. This cheese is made from pasteurized sheeps’ milk and aged three weeks. This cheese is creamy white in color with a clean rind. I would consider this a semi-soft cheese with a smooth, buttery texture. It contains eyes that are small, about the size of a sesame seed.
The flavor is sweet and nutty with a hint of sour. The saltiness of the cheese is of the right balance with the taste of the fresh sheeps’ milk, fresh butter and even a taste of almonds. The aftertaste is also well-balanced and leaves you wanting for more.
I’d suggest pairing this cheese with a piece of chocolate…
I give the three-week DM 3 Paws out of 4 Paws (cause that’s all I’ve got).
This is the blended-milk cheese using both sheep and cow milks. This cheese had the least aroma of the four with only whiffs of the cow and sheep coming through. The texture is creamy and firmer than the young sheeps’ milk reviewed above. This cheese is brighter in color; almost an ivory with nice eyes throughout. The taste however, was quite appealing and this cheese was the favorite of a couple of our “tasters”. The notes we received on the tastes were mild, buttery and one person compared it to a Jack cheese. I tasted pepper and fresh cream. The cheese melted on my palate and left a lingering, satisfying aftertaste.
As with all four of the cheeses, the rind has the signature basket-weave that many Spanish cheeses have. Unlike the young DM, the rind has an olive color.
Aged Sheeps’ Milk DM
This cheese received high praise from the group and was the second favorite for most of the group. Made from raw sheeps’ milk, this cheese has a definite “Wow!!” factor.
The paste is straw-colored with more defined eyes than the first two cheeses. This cheese has a firmer texture and a low humidity dryness that you would expect from an aged cheese. The taste is nutty, with hints of both pepper and maybe nutmeg. The aroma is intense and the grass and sheeps’ milk are there; definitely a result of lack of pasteurization and quality cheesemaking. The aftertaste also highlights the grass and even a citrus taste.
This award-winning cheese walked away with a Gold Medal at the 2010 World Cheese Awards.
I give the Aged Sheeps’ Milk DM 4 Paws out of 4 Paws (cause that’s all I’ve got).
Mature Sheeps’ Milk DM
While all four cheeses were well-received by the group and your favorite Feline Foodie (that would be moi), this cheese was the runaway favorite of all of us.
This cheese, like the other four, has the zigzag, basket weave pattern on the rind which is an olive brown with some clean areas that show the ivory paste inside. Again, the eyes are bigger than the other three which would be part of the natural aging-process.
Also made with raw, sheeps’ milk, this cheese is aged fourteen months and as a result the flavors and aromas are the most intense of the four cheeses. The paste is drier and firm with little elasticity. The aroma has fresh dairy and clean, recently rained-upon grass scents with nuttiness and again a whiff of citrus. The flavor is intense, again with the fresh milk, butter and bell pepper, a favorite cheese taste for The Lady and me. The saltiness is perfectly balanced and the aftertaste has hazelnut and apricot mixed in.
This is one terrific cheese!!
I give Mature Sheep’s Milk DM 4 Paws out of 4 Paws (cause that’s all I’ve got).
Serving Suggestions: The Lady served these cheeses simply with crackers to preserve the integrity of the first tastings. Then after the notes were done, she added Dalmatia Fig Spread, Ficoco and Strawberry preserves to the board to compliment the cheeses. She also had a few green grapes which went well on the board. (The Lady believes that all cheeses go well with grapes. I concur.)
Wine Pairing: The Lady suggests a Spanish Tempranillo.
Beer Pairing: North Coast Old Stock
Source: Cheeses 1, 3 and 4 are made with sheeps’ milk (3 and 4 are raw sheeps’ milk); The Luyan is a blend of sheep and cows’ milk.
Awards: More than thirty since 2000, including seven at the 2010 World Cheese Awards this past November in Birmingham, England.
Reminder: These cheeses are not currently available in the US; but Ilbesa would like to change that. Please contact Raquel through their website.
FTC Full Disclosure – The cheesemaker/manufacturer sent me their product, hoping I would review the product/cheese.