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Sheep's milk cheeses take hold in the Valley.
CARUTHERS -- Abe Abuhilal is readying his rare sheep's milk cheeses for sale.
He cuts into a wheel of Journey, a pecorino-style cheese. He pulls pieces of baladi, a Middle Eastern cheese, out of brine. And he scoops a bit of feta for samples.
Made with organic raw sheep's milk, all of these cheeses have been resting about 60 days, the minimum required aging period for raw-milk cheeses. Now they're ready for retail under the Chateau Fresno Organic brand.
Selling these cheeses is the fulfillment of a long-standing dream for Abuhilal, an agriculture consultant.
"All my life, I have been doing this," Abuhilal says about cheesemaking. He grew up in Abu Dis, a Palestinian town that was known for its cheeses.

Sheep's milk cheeses take hold in the Valley

Agricultural consultant Abe Abuhilal of Caruthers, owner of Chateau Fresno Organic, shaves off a sample of aged sheep’s milk cheese.

Sheep's milk cheeses take hold in the Valley
Abuhilal processes raw sheep’s milk, which he uses to fulfill a lifelong dream of making certified organic cheese.

Sheep's milk cheeses take hold in the Valley
Abuhilal uses his cheeses to make a blackberry ricotta pudding.

Sheep's milk cheeses take hold in the Valley

Abuhilal is gearing up to sell cheeses at Kingsburg Farmers market and through Abundant Harvest Organics and in stores.
As a graduate student, Abuhilal studied in Sardinia, an autonomous region of Italy. There, he learned how to create the famed pecorino sardo, a firm sheep's milk cheese.
In bringing these styles to the United States, Abuhilal joins a fledgling domestic sheep cheese industry. His cheese is even more of a rarity; it is made with vegetarian rennet (the substance that forms curds in milk) and is certified organic.
Compared to Europe and the Middle East, the U.S. has far fewer sheep dairies. There are several reasons sheep aren't as popular as cows or goats for dairy products, says Liam Callahan of Bellwether Farms in Sonoma County. Sheep yield less milk, and lambing requires more work than calving or kidding. Sales of dairy sheep are uncommon.
The domestic demand for sheep cheese outstrips the supply, Callahan adds. Bellwether, a pioneer in California's industry, started offering sheep cheese in the 1990s. As its cheese changed from a pecorino style to the San Andreas and Pepato, semi-firm farmstead cheeses with a smoother mouthfeel, sales have remained strong, Callahan says.
In addition to tending its own flock of sheep, Bellwether buys sheep's milk from a dairy in Nebraska. But it still isn't enough.
"We're trying to get other people -- anywhere -- to start raising dairy sheep," Callahan says.
Why is sheep's milk cheese so popular, anyway?
"Sheep's milk cheeses are so wonderful because of the fat content," says Sara Vivenzio, director of The Cheese School of San Francisco. "And there are nutty, very savory flavors in sheep's milk."
Well-known types include Italian pecorinos; Roquefort, the French blue cheese; and Spanish manchego. Because of the interest in such cheeses and others, the school occasionally holds a class called "Silly about Sheep." It features 8-10 fresh, aged and blue cheeses from around the world, as well as information about dairy sheep.
"It's really to get an understanding of the animal and flavor profiles of the milk," Vivenzio says.
The taste of the cheese depends on the milk, Abuhilal agrees. "What you feed the animal influences the taste of the cheese," he says.
He grows organic alfalfa for his sheep. Its high protein results in very rich milk and flavorful cheeses, Abuhilal says.
The Journey, a firm cheese, has a slight saltiness and gaminess that would pair well with pasta. The baladi, squeaky against the teeth, can go sweet and savory. It's a filling for kenafe, a dessert with shredded phyllo dough.
Paired with herbs such as parsley and mint, it's also a topping (or filling) for bread.
And then there's the raw ricotta, which also must be aged for 60 days before hitting the marketplace. Last week, it was still young, fresh and mild, offering a hint of its future taste. With honey and bananas, it was a topping for fresh bread. Blended with blackberries in a pudding, it masqueraded as dessert.
Abuhilal is gearing up to sell these cheeses at venues such as the Kingsburg farmers market and Abundant Harvest Organics community-supported agriculture, a subscription service that directly connects farmers and customers.
He also intends to sell them in stores. For more information, call him at (559) 896-4225.