Cream of the Flock: Monkeyflower Ranch’s Sheep Cheese is Winning Notice—and Awards
It’s not uncommon to see fluffy white spots dotting the hillside as you drive through the more bucolic parts of Monterey County. Unlike most sheep in the United States—which are raised for either their wool or their meat—the flocks who call Monkeyflower Ranch home have been bred specifically for milk.
Americans eat up to 45 million pounds of imported sheep cheese annually, but many are unaware that amazing artisan sheep cheeses are being produced here at home. Headquartered at Monkeyflower Ranch in Royal Oaks, Garden Variety Cheese is producing some of the most unique and flavorful farmstead cheese in the country, and their raw cheeses are a true regional treasure.
Just a few years ago, Rebecca King was living in a vintage Airstream trailer on rented pasture with a few dozen sheep. But in 2009, she relocated to Monkeyflower Ranch, where her flock doubled and she also welcomed a brood of free-range hens and a handful of heritage-breed hogs.
Armed with a degree in agro-ecology from University of California, Santa Cruz, and years of experience both working on farms and as a cheesemonger, King did her market research and saw an opportunity. “I looked at what is being produced. There is lots of cow and goat cheese ... I saw an open niche, and sheep make the best-tasting cheese.” And with that, Garden Variety Cheese joined the tiny ranks of domestic sheep cheese producers.
Sheep milk is indeed ideal for cheesemaking, containing twice the amount of solids as cow milk (thus producing twice the amount of cheese). The flavor is highly concentrated and makes a product that is strong, sweet and nutty, and highly sought after by foodies and chefs alike.
But it didn’t take long for King to understand why few Americans are raising dairy sheep: They are extremely inefficient. While any sheep can be milked, a few breeds are favored worldwide for their relatively high production. King’s flock are a cross between Lacaune (developed by a large-scale French breeding program) and East Friesian (a German breed, known for high production and birth rate, that is often crossed with other breeds to improve hardiness).
Yet, even these sheep only produce milk six to eight months out of each year and must be milked twice each day just to produce about a half gallon of milk. Toward the end of the season, the volume goes down even further (though the fat content goes up).
Garden Variety produces yogurt and fresh cheese, which use pasteurized milk, but they are best known for their award-winning raw cheeses (all named after flowers). By law, all raw milk products must be aged at least 60 days but King ages many for up to 10 months. This results in intense flavor but also an extremely long time between when the flock of about 100 ewes (also named after flowers) visits the milking parlor and time that any profit is seen.
Even under the best of circumstances, sheep dairying does not have a very high profit margin, but the drought has wreaked havoc on the young business’s bottom line. Lack of rain has caused both the pasture to suffer and the cost of grain to rise. Despite supplementing with donated spent grain from Santa Cruz Mountain Brewery and leftover vegetables from local organic farms, for the past three years King has been forced to spend about $30,000 each year for extra feed and irrigation.
“I’m not making any money,” King says. “What I charge for food is what it actually costs … my clothes are secondhand.”
Despite the difficulties, King continues to work toward economic viability for Garden Variety while remaining a model of sustainability. The sheep are dewormed with a garlic concentrate and wool from shearing is donated to a nonprofit, which spins it to make blankets. Additionally, Monkeyflower Ranch has enthusiastically teamed up with the Wild Farm Alliance, which brought teams of volunteers to plant native hedgerows, remove invasive eucalyptus trees and install owl boxes and raptor perches—all of which promote biodiversity and overall health of the ranch.
“I definitely don’t have the resources to do all this by myself,” King gratefully says while listing all of the improvements.
When asked why raw cheese, King responds “Pasteurized only has the four cultures that you add to it. Raw cheese has a lot more complexity and uniqueness—thousands of wild cultures. In Europe, towns have developed a shared cheese culture and identity over thousands of years. They might use the same caves, the same kinds of sheep, the same kinds of cheese. They pioneered cheesemaking and figured out what worked. That’s why you have regional styles of cheese. The United States doesn’t have the same tradition. It’s much more individual and each farm has its own microflora.”
Motioning toward her flock, she adds, “I have sheep. This is my environment. This is my aging cave. Let’s experiment and see what turns out great.”
It would appear that King has figured out the “great” part. Her year-round offerings, Black Eyed Susan, Hollyhock and Cosmos, have all recently earned medals from the Good Food Awards and the American Cheese Society, cementing her place in the artisan cheese world and in the pantries of her devoted fans who have discovered that while a wedge might cost a bit more at the farmers market, it lasts quite a long time, as only a small amount is required to impart serious flavor.
“That’s why each cheese has its own name and is unique, I’m not trying to make cheddar cheese,” King declares.
Garden Variety Cheese can be found at eight farmers markets throughout the Bay Area, where customers can buy direct (and sometimes even meet the lambs). King also runs an “Adopt-A-Ewe” CSA program in which customers front $325–$500 to help run the farm and in turn receive product as well as opportunities to visit the farm (normally not open to the public). King also sells cheese and yogurt direct to stores and restaurants, and is working on raising funds to expand her yogurt operation.
HISTORY OF SHEEP DAIRYING
The relationship between humans and sheep (Ovis aries) began nearly 11,000 years ago, in the fertile crescent of what is now Western Iran and Turkey. The gregarious and gentle nature of sheep, combined with their many uses, made them ideal early candidates for domestication. Sheep milk and meat were one of the earliest staple proteins of human civilization.
While the origin of cheese is uncertain, a leading theory is that it was discovered accidentally when milk transported in a bag made of sheep stomach heated up in the sun and activated the enzymes (rennin) in the stomach lining. As the milk swished around, it would have separated the solids (curds) and liquid (whey). This unknown traveler was brave, or desperate, enough to sample the contents, and the discovery altered the culinary destiny of the entire human race.
Sheep dairying and cheesemaking spread from the Middle East to Europe and have become deeply embedded in both the culinary traditions and cultural identity of many parts of the world (think Spanish Manchego, Palestinian Nabulsi, French Roquefort and Italian Pecorino Romano). It has been slower to catch on in North America, due in part to the lack of tradition (European dairy breeds didn’t even appear here until the early 1990s) and a 2001 livestock import ban imposed by the USDA to prevent the spread of Mad Cow Disease and Scrapie, a similar affliction that affects sheep.