BEAVER BROOK FARM in Lyme, Conn., has been in the Sankow family since 1917, but it wasn’t until 1984 that Stan and Suzanne Sankow introduced sheep to their 175 acres. They broke into the cheese business in an unconventional way with ”half a flock,” as Mrs. Sankow put it: a ram bought for her by her husband at an agricultural fair in Massachusetts. She spins and weaves, so, they thought, why not have their very own wool producer?
They named him Ding, as in ”Who put the ram in the ram-a-lam-a-ding-dong.” The Sankows are mature enough to collect Social Security, and they fondly recall songs from the 1950’s — a time when Americans ate processed cheese and even Cheddar was considered exotic.
The choice of a ram might not have seemed propitious for the start of a dairy operation, but 19 years later the Sankows have 220 Friesland ewes, seven rams and a growing reputation for making savory and robust artisanal sheeps’ milk cheeses.
The Sankows’ property, with its white farmhouse dating to 1840, was a dairy cow farm until the cows were put out to pasture some 35 years ago, when the milk industry in New England collapsed. The farm then turned to hay and beef cattle. Now eight nut-brown Jersey cows nibble the grass there, contributing their milk to flavorful cheeses and also to quart bottles of milk sold the old-fashioned way, with the cream on top.
When Mrs. Sankow first had the idea of making cheese, she attended some classes on the art. The results were not satisfactory, so she applied for a federal grant for sustainable agriculture and used it to learn from a master. She brought over Alfred Michiels, a former cheesemaker of the year in Belgium. Having him teach her the hands-on intricacies of cheese making was, as she puts it, ”like having a grandmother showing you her favorite recipes.”
Probably the most classic and distinctive of the sheep’s milk cheeses the Sankows produce is Farmstead, a very firm, dry, nutty raw-milk cheese aged for 10 months. There is also Cracked Peppercorn, a creamy soft cheese whose tartness mingles nicely with the snap of its peppery covering, and Summer Savory, also a soft cheese, flavored with the herb of the same name.
On the firmer side there’s Pleasant Valley, a mild but rich aged cheese with just enough of an edge to tingle taste buds.
From the cows there is the aptly named Pleasant Cow, a semifirm cheese aged for six months or more that is rather mild but has a nice creamy tang to it. There’s also a very rich Camembert and Nehantic Abbey, a 6-month-old sharp cheese.
The Sankows make their feta, traditionally a sheep’s milk cheese aged in brine, from Jersey milk; the cheese is so crumbly and succulent it makes store-bought feta taste like crushed saltines.
As cheesemakers know, butterfat is where the flavor is. The Sankows’ Jerseys begin the spring milking season producing milk with 5.2 percent butterfat; this drops slowly to 4.8 percent over the course of several months. The sheep start with 7.2 percent and drop to about 6 percent. Holstein milk, in contrast, hovers between 3.2 and 3.4 percent butterfat.
Visitors to the farm can watch the milking, but not the cheesemaking, because of health regulations. The milking parlor is operated by students from, at various times, Slovakia, Belarus, Thailand, Bulgaria, Ecuador and Romania, who come to the United States to learn marketing techniques for small-is-beautiful-style agriculture.
The cheeses are aged in a walk-in cooler where they rest on wooden racks while their flavor develops. The atmosphere is a constant 55 degrees with 80 percent humidity.
Beaver Brook Farm produces some 6,000 pounds of various sheep cheeses a year. They are sold at the farm, 139 Beaver Brook Road, and by mail order: (800) 501-9665. The farm’s Web site, for information only, is www.beaverbrookfarm.com. The cheeses are also sold on Saturdays at the Farmers Market in Greenwich, Conn., and at Murray’s Cheese Shop, 257 Bleecker Street in New York City: (212) 243-3289.
The Pleasant Valley cheese is about $16 a pound at the farm, the cow’s milk Camembert $20 a pound. There is a sheep’s milk ricotta for $5 a half-pound; Beaver Brook’s is sweeter than cow’s milk ricotta and is great whipped on fresh berries.
Mrs. Sankow had made good use of all that wool: the farm sells sweaters and boiled-wool jackets. No offense to the sheep, but what really matters is their milk.