SIX YEARS AGO JOAN SNYDER SET OUT to persuade retail stores to carry something new and weird: the sheep's milk cheeses she was producing in upstate New York. "I started at Fairway, Balducci and Dean & DeLuca," she says, naming three of Manhattan's most sophisticated food shops. "They loved it, and I thought, 'This is a piece of cake'." Then she tried every place else. "They all said, 'Sheep cheese? Get it out of here'." Today her job is a lot easier: sheep cheese and yogurt from Hollow Road Farms, as well as from a dozen or so other producers, can be found in classy retail dairy cases around the country. Quantities are still very limited--Hollow Road, the largest producer, will make only about 12,000 pounds of cheese this year. But this stuff has a future: once people try sheep cheese, they're hooked.
Fresh sheep cheese is pure white and wonderfully clean-tasting, with a slight tang that evokes the sun, the air and the grass that went into the making of the milk. The yogurt is scrumptious, too, so rich and complex it leaves pallid, supermarket yogurts in the dust. Some producers are making hard, aged sheep cheese, such as pecorino, and Hollow Road has come up with a lovely Camembert knockoff. But it's the light, spreadable fresh cheese that's winning hearts and minds-in part because, like all fresh cheeseS, it's low in fat. Fresh sheep cheese has only about three grams of fat per ounce. Cream cheese, its closest sibling in taste and texture, has 10.
Can sheep cheese become the next goat cheese? That's the question the industry is debating fight now. "It's coming along, but it's probably where goat cheese was back in the early '80s," says Ari Weinzweig, owner of Ann Arbor's Zingerman's Dell, known for its handpicked array of cheeses. One problem is that there's not that much sheep cheese around. American sheep are fine for meat and wool but give little milk, so until recently, sheep farmers who wanted to make cheese had to breed their way to more productive animals. Now better sheep are being imported, and farmers are upgrading their flocks. "We'll get twice as much milk from the same number of animals," says Cindy Callahan of Bellwether Farms in Petaluma, Calif.
Then there's the problem of getting people to eat sheep cheese. "Unless there's a strong connection with chefs, it's going to be a difficult market to develop," says Allison Hoeper, president of Vermont Butter and Cheese, which produces both goat and cow's milk cheeses. "Small companies look to chefs to set the trend, and I'm not sure chefs would replace chevre with sheep's cheese." But some celebrated chefs are on board, including Michael Romano of New York's Union Square Care. "Goat cheese is more widely known, but it's not necessarily better," he says. "We use sheep's milk ricotta as a ravioli filling. It's very delicate, very sweet and mild." Sounds yummy, but that's not going to put sheep cheese over the top. When you see it on pizza, everywhere, that's when you'll know sheep rule.