Maybe not the favorite of many dairy lovers, sheep’s milk actually beats cow’s milk in terms of nutritional value and cheese yield: Sheep milk contains much higher levels of protein, iron, calcium, folic acid, and vitamin B12. Some famous sheep cheeses include Feta, Roquefort and Pecorino Romano.
But there’s a much richer and lesser-known sheep cheese heritage in Italy, and it exists partly thanks to the biodiversity of Italian sheep breeds.
In case you still didn’t know, intensive livestock farming is threatening the biodiversity of farm animals around the world. Fast productive hybrids have been replacing local breeds and the practice of transhumance is disappearing. This is why Slow Food protects many sheep breeds in danger of extinction, and promotes their cheeses at Cheese.
As you pass through the Italian regional stands at Cheese this year, keep an eye out for sheep cheese producers. Ask them which breed they work with to make their cheese, perhaps they’ll be able to tell you a little more about these particular breeds:
1. Belice, Sicily
From the Belice valley in Sicily, this is one of the most productive Italian sheep, with a 287 liters of milk produced per year. The breed is a triple-cross of the Pinzirita, Comisana and Sarda breeds, and its milk is perfectly suited to cheesemaking, being fatty and full of protein.
Many say this breed’s milk is the only milk worth stretching. In fact, the only Italian stretched sheep cheese, Belice Vastedda (Slow Food Presidium), is made from its milk.
Belice is one of the seventeen native Italian sheep breeds listed by the National Association of Pastoralists. It is bred in the provinces of Agrigento, Palermo and Trapani in Sicily.
2. Cornella, Emilia-Romagna
The Cornella is raised both for milk and meat. Normally, these sheep are raised in the areas between Bologna and Modena, and their milk is used to make Pecorino cheese, which is sold commercially across the country. The Cornella has been influenced over time by the Massese and Garfagnina breeds, since they have been in close winter contact during transhumance migrations towards Tuscany.
However, in recent years, the Cornella has almost disappeared due to the decline in herder numbers and their substitution with more productive breeds. The typical cheese from Cornella milk is Reggiano Appenine Pecorino, which is listed under the Ark of Taste.
3. Langhe, Piedmont
Once upon a time, every farmhouse in the Alta Langa kept a few dozen Langhe sheep. Also known as the Langarola, this is a local breed raised in the upper Langhe hills in the province of Cuneo.
With the rise of industrialization, their numbers have fallen drastically since the 1950s. Today, there are around 2000 of them left, spread between Piedmont and Liguria.
Their raw milk is used to make the typical Langhe sheep Tuma (Slow Food Presidium). The tuma is cylindrical, with a weight of 200 – 350 grams and a pale soft paste with small eyes. The rindless cheese is eaten fresh, though it can also be stored in jars (called tuma ’n burnia in the Piedmontese dialect) for the whole winter.
4. Bagnolese, Campania
The Bagnolese breed is believed to derive from the crossbreeding of the Barbaresca and other local breeds of the Appennines. This is a rustic breed, well adapted to rough environments. Bagnolese sheep are still largely kept in wild or semi-wild state, feeding on herbal pastures with integration only in the winter.
Though it is not in heavy danger of extinction, it is a truly unique breed that deserves special attention considering the excellent quality of its milk.
Most Bagnolese breeders produce a fresh Pecorino. This cheese is traditionally served as an appetizer or at the end of a meal. When aged it takes on a piquant flavor and is used grated. Bagnolese Pecorino is often paired with the dense Aglianico wines produced in the area of Avellino.
Now that you have learned four rare Italian sheep breeds and their cheeses, you can look for them at Cheese!