Sheep and cheese aren't the most obvious of culinary pairings. Yes, there are famous ewe's milk creations like feta and manchego, but they're small fry (curd?) compared to cheese board big hitters cheddar or Brie, both produced with standard cow's milk.
Grandma Singletons would beg to differ. The Lancashire dairy has been making Parlick Fell, a pure sheep's milk cheese unique to the region, for generations and also happens to be the largest sheep's milk cheesemaker in Britain. Every year, they produce around 60 tonnes of the stuff, a third of which gets sent to America.
Singletons is also one of a handful of dairies in the surrounding ten-mile radius—known as the Trough of Bowland—to make a authentic, creamy Lancashire cheese. They've been doing it since 1934, so it's safe to say, they're au fait with their fromage.
"Why did we start with sheep?" John Carr, the dairy's sales manager muses. "Well …"
He launches into a tale of milk quotas and of the ups and downs of agricultural life, comparable to an episode of The Archers. Cheese was originally made, as with so many Lancashire dairies, as a byproduct of keeping milking cows. Small local farms made curds, which were accumulated over a period of two or three days until they'd filled a cheese form. This way of making cheese became specific to this part of the north of England, and its farms and dairies grew.
Eventually, it became more profitable for Singletons to sell the cows than to keep and milk them. So they did.
"We had a choice between llamas, goats, and sheep. We'd seen a rise in popularity for goat's milk products but I said, 'We're not doing bloody goats because they stink.'" explains Carr. "Still, we knew non-cow's milk was a growth market because more and more people are developing lactose intolerance. There's a lot less lactose in sheep's milk and we were farmers needing something to farm. We weren't going to do goats or llamas, so sheep it was!"
This was around 15 years ago, and Singletons started with a flock of between 600 and 700 sheep. You need a lot of sheep to make just a little cheese though, so the dairy encouraged other local farmers to start milking their sheep, forming a cooperative that supplies the dairy to this day.
"Inadvertently, we started a thriving sheep milk industry centred around Parlick Fell, where most the sheep graze, here in the Trough of Bowland," says Carr.
Singletons is just a dairy these days but local sheep farmers still supply them.
"There's a hell of a lot of sheep round here! When I drive to work these days, I see more sheep than cows," says Carr. "It's not an ideal climate for sheep because it's so damp, but the rain is good for the grass and sheep eat a lot of it. All the sheep milk we use comes from no more than eight miles away."
Although it requires more sheep to reap the equivalent volume of milk than from cows, Carr explains that the milk you do get makes a lot more cheese.
"Normally, ten litres of cow's milk will give you a kilo of cheese," he says. "But ten litres of sheep milk will make about 1.6 kilos, because it has more fatty solids in it. All the fatty solids and proteins are more concentrated."
Think of it as like a choice between having a small glass of wine or a shot of Sambuca. For cheesemaking, it's the fat content that's crucial, and sheep have a greater percentage of it in their milk.
"The sheep might produce less volume," says Carr, "but the quality is far better."
Apart from a smaller, sheep-sized milking kit, the cheesemaking process is the same as for cows. Milk is warmed and rennet is added to separate curds from whey. Curds are then compacted together, before being cut and turned several times to get the liquid out. Finally, the mixture is salted and pressed into forms, allowing more liquid to drain out.
"The sheep are milked twice a day. It's a seasonal milk because unlike cows, the sheep aren't producing milk all year round," says Carr. "We make a long-keeping cheese from their milk in order to make sure that there's a supply of the cheese throughout the year, even when the sheep aren't milking. As a dairy, we specialise in 'keepers.' We make all our cheeses, including our Lancashires, with less moisture to avoid giving the cheese any bitter whey flavours."
The resulting Parlick Fell cheese is nothing like either feta or manchego, but similar in style to a traditional Lancashire cheese: creamy, flavoursome, and slightly sweet.
"With feta, for example, the basis of the cheese is its saltiness," says Carr, "which is great in a hot Mediterranean country, because it helps you to retain water. Manchego cheese is also made from sheep's milk, but Parlick Fell isn't hard like that. Our cheese is almost the opposite of both of these. It's sweeter because it's based on the sweetness of the sheep's milk and it's got a soft and creamy texture, which means it melts really well. It's very distinctly different."
Later, I melt my Parlick Fell on toast, and I can confirm that it does indeed go very well. This cheese might be a "keeper," but it doesn't stay uneaten for long enough to earn that title in my house.