Change It Up: Thistle Rennet Sheep Milk Cheeses

(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

We all have our standby picks when it comes to cheese. (Or at least I do.)
Sometimes, though, relying on a go-to list of favorites can impede experimentation at the cheese counter. The result of such dependence? The dreaded cheese rut.
Time to meet one of the more interesting styles of cheese around, found in only one part of the world, with a flavor so different that it’d cure even the darkest of cheese doldrums.

Look for it, pronto: raw sheep milk cheeses made with thistle rennet. Rather than use animal or vegetable rennet to coagulate the solids in milk to turn into cheese, a cheesemaker can use a wild cardoon thistle rennet, which lends a pretty unique flavor. For the sake of being honest, it’s important to note that some people might consider these cheeses to be an acquired taste. (Full disclosure: I’m a believer.)

It’s the thistle rennet that’s responsible for such compelling change of flavor profile from other cheeses; while more conventional rennets– typically animal, vegetable, or microbial– have virtually no flavor, the thistle coagulant imparts a most definite something, best described as tangy and slightly floral. In conjunction with the rich, gamey quality of sheep milk, the combination is mysteriously effective.

They’re cheeses that don’t necessarily fit snuggly into any one style. For the most part, they’re semi-soft, lightly pressed cheeses, and their flavor is totally– truly, totally— apart from any other cheese around. The most apparent flavor is a heady sourness. Relating one of these cheeses to a basic cheddar, for example, would be like comparing a sour lambic beer to a straightforward lager.

These cheeses are strong, too, in both flavor and aroma. Think funky, but in a super delicious kind of way. Indeed, they’re a different animal completely, a world away from every other cheese in the case. And while we’re talking geography, it’s important to note that you’ll find this style made in only the Extremadura region of Spain and in Portugal.

Part of what makes thistle-renneted sheep milk cheeses so special is how well they act with other foods. These are cheeses that go remarkably well with sherry, olives, cornichons, cured meats, and nuts. Because of the gooey, unctuous quality to these cheeses– like ready-made fondue– they’re so satisfyingly spreadable on breads, too. Some of them are even bound with cloth, to support their pudding-like insides from seeping through the rind.

Some specific examples to seek out:

  • Queso de la Serena

  • Serra da Estrela

  • Amanteigado

  • Amarelo da Beira Baixa

  • Evora

  • Azeitao

  • Torta del Casar

Have you ever tried these cheeses? And what’s your verdict?

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 TV Chef on The Martha Stewart Show.