On his Karoo farm Charles Lord produces sheep’s milk cheese, a popular delicacy with health-conscious foodies…
Words and Pictures: Sue Derwent
‘‘C’mon Lou, you have to try!” I push a plate of sheep’s milk cheese across the table towards my friend Louise Arthur. We’re sitting outside in the dappled sun on the wide veranda of Beaconsfield farmhouse in the Karoo – laughing as we try to get Louise to taste. She shakes her head and wrinkles her nose. She’s never eaten sheep’s milk cheese before and isn’t sure she wants to start now. But I’m insistent. At least try it for yourself.
“Okay, try the yoghurt then!” I nudge a bowl of creamy yoghurt towards her. Under pressure, Louise tentatively takes a small taste and breaks into a huge grin before finishing it all. I nudge the cheese again and she takes a small piece of smooth, pale yellow Gouda carefully cut into pieces by Charles Lord, owner of Beaconsfield farm. “This is very mild,” she announces as she takes another piece. Charles’s son Bruce brings out a second plate, this time with hot, fried halloumi sheep’s cheese with a dollop of sweet chilli sauce. Neither of us hesitates. And we finally wash it down with a short shot of sheep’s milk – straight.
Like Louise, very few people in South Africa have tasted sheep’s milk cheese, or any sheep’s milk produce for that matter, as it isn’t found in many supermarkets. Most people imagine it will taste something like goat’s milk, which has a strong and distinctive taste many don’t like. But there’s always the surprise to discover that sheep’s milk tastes a bit like bland cow’s milk, but slightly sweeter.
Cheese and other dairy produce made from sheep’s milk, while quite rich, are delicious, mild, and ‘cleaner’ tasting, without the slight buttery-ness of even low fat and fat-free cow’s milk. It seems that sheep’s milk is also much healthier than cow’s milk for humans, and tastes better than goat’s or soya milk.
Charles Lord is native to the Karoo heartland. Having grown up in the Hofmeyer district, he has farmed on Beaconsfield just outside the town of Hofmeyer for 30-odd years. Many years ago, the farm carried a dairy herd and Charles farmed ostrich for some time until the market collapsed. He decided to stick to sheep and looked around for some added benefit. After tracking down a man in Welkom who knew something about making sheep’s milk cheese and yoghurt, Charles tried it out for himself – and pretty ground-breaking it was too. At the moment Beaconsfield is the only producer of sheep’s cheese in the country.
Charles pushes open the stable door, and we walk into the light and airy milking shed that once served as a dairy for milking cows, now converted to a sheep dairy. The ewes, a little tentative because of Louise and I, cluster at the door. Eventually one takes the plunge, and the rest follow into the milk shed like. . .well, sheep.
They jostle into the clamps and immediately tuck into their breakfast. They have done this many times before and don’t even budge when one of the staff lightly pats their udders and attaches the milking machine to their teats. It’s soon over and the moms clatter off to the next pen, before being released to spend the rest of their day with their lambs.
“The ewes are not milked completely because some milk is left for the lambs,”says Charles, as we watch the lambs clambering about in a nearby shed, waiting for their mom, who are finally released from their milking duties, bleating loudly in a cloud of dust and chaos. In response the far from meek lambs come bolting out of the shed, skidding around, stopping here and there to listen out for that special baa. With dust flying they scamper again through the throngs, nudging the odd alien udder and getting bumped away.
Meanwhile the ewes are yelling at the top of their voices for their children but, finally, after a few false starts – and I have no idea how those lambs find their birth mothers in all the drama – each ewe is matched to her own lamb, and the little ones settle onto their front knees to suckle happily from their mother.
Charles currently has about 150 East Friesian sheep. Originating in Germany, they are often considered one of the best milk breeds of sheep, producing on average 500 litres of milk during a 200 to 300 day lactation. He also keeps Ile de France sheep, known for their meat, but also used for cheese production. Ultimately, he hopes to increase the herd to more than 500, and increase his present production of sheep’s milk yoghurt, Gouda, halloumi, feta, ricotta and pecorino, all preservative- and colourant-free.
- In Europe sheep’s milk cheese is extremely popular, and hundreds of varieties are produced.
- Sheep’s milk is the closest you can get to human breast milk.
- It’s very nutritious and has a much higher percentage of solids than cow’s or goat’s milk.
- It contains up to twice as much calcium, phosphorus and zinc, and all the important B group vitamins.
- It’s ideal for growing children, nursing mothers and even good for women in middle-age keen to maximise their calcium intake.
- It’s a great alternative for people with allergies and lactose intolerance.
- According to research in Germany, sheep’s milk has more conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) than milk from pigs, horses, goats, cattle, and humans. CLA is a cancer-fighting, fat-reducing fat.
- Fat globules in sheep’s milk are smaller than the fat globules in cow’s milk, making sheep’s milk more easily digested.
- Sheep’s milk is not as high in saturated fatty acids as other milks; 45% of its fatty acids are either mono- or polyunsaturated.
- According to Charles, many people who are advised to go off dairy products can happily eat sheep’s cheese and yoghurt after years of privation.