Any American cheese enthusiast has heard of Major Farm's iconic sheep milk cheese, Vermont Shepherd. It's the oldest sheep milk cheese produced in the US. But with severely limited production, available only from late August through February, it's a cheese with loyal yet frustrated followers; every year it seems that the season's supply of Vermont Shepherd runs out more quickly than the year before, only to have to wait six or more months to see it again!
Chances are, even if you know and love Vermont Shepherd as much as the rest of us, you don't know about Queso del Invierno, Major Farm's only foray into another type of cheese, making its debut for the very first time this year. Lucky for all of us, it'll be the cheese to (very capably) fill the gap during its older sibling's dry season.
Considering the stringent milking and farming practices at Major Farm, it's not surprising that Vermont Shepherd can be elusive: cheese is only made when sheep are on pasture, from April through November, and then the cheese must age for 4 to 8 months. It's also the only cheese like it in the states, a French Pyrenees-style raw sheep cheese. Super unique. And so people want it. Right away. With demand so high, the farm can't hold onto enough wheels to make the cheese available year-round.
Enter Queso Del Invierno, sounding more like a cheese from Catalonia than one from Vermont. It means "Winter Cheese" and that's exactly what it is: in the winter, it'll tide over the masses who are stuck craving that very craveable aforementioned Vermont Shepherd, during the months when it is nowhere to be seen. Queso del Invierno is a 50/50 cow/sheep blend. And herein lies the trick behind its longer season of availability. Since the cheese isn't all sheep milk from the farm-- they get the cow milk from a neighboring farm-- there's more actual raw material with which to make cheese.
There's not much out there quite like it. It's rare to see sheep/cow blends, especially in the States (you see some in Italy in the form of Robiolas, and some in France, in the Pyrenees), and especially of this particular style. The stats: natural-rinded, like a classic tomme in the style of Tomme de Savoie or St. Nectaire, but I tasted a decidedly funky, stinky flavor. The texture, too, lent itself more to the style of a washed rind cheese than a natural rinded one, its pudgy, semi-soft paste lingering for many moments on the tongue after your initial swallow. It's made from 100% raw milk, too.
It's salty. Pleasantly so, but again, in that briny, washed rind kind of way, almost reminiscent of the Irish great, Ardrahan. But it's buttery, rich, and earthy, too, which is why it's sure to strike you. Truly, I think this is my newest favorite cheese, if only because it's doing such stellar duty filling in until I can get my next fix of Vermont Shepherd.
Queso del Invierno is available at Saxelby Cheesemongers for $28.99/lb.
Related: All About Pecorino
Nora Singley is an avid lover of cheese, and for some time she was a Cheesemonger and the Director of Education at Murray's Cheese Shop in New York City, where she continues to teach cheese classes for the public. She is currently an assistant chef on The Martha Stewart Show.
(Image: Nora Singley)