“WHAT MAKES THESE SHEEP PARTICULARLY SPECIAL IS THAT THEY’RE A RARE BREED, INDIGENOUS TO THE AREA”
It’s 10am in Borough Market and Brindisa employee Stuart Green is describing one of his favourite products. “There’s a fudginess to it, with honey, almond – even vanilla notes,” he enthuses. “It has a caramelly, almost white chocolate taste,” his colleague Hugh excitedly chips in. Naturally, anyone listening in would imagine they’re discussing the torta de Santiago, or some rich and squidgy turron – yet Stuart and Hugh are cheesemongers, and the object of their passion in this case is neither cake nor biscuit, but Payoyo de Oveja: a rare, semi-hard and fully flavoursome ewe’s milk cheese.
“Even the Spanish can struggle to find it, it’s so rare,” says Stuart. Similar in its style of production to a manchego, it’s made in the mountains of the Sierra de Grazalema, Andalucia: “An alpine valley, with exceptionally high levels of rainfall.” The result is an abundance of herbs, wild grasses and flowers which, if you’re a sheep, constitute a perfect meal.
For any cheese, this is a good sign: the richer the diet, the better the milk will be – but what makes this breed of sheep particularly special is that it’s a rare breed, indigenous to the area. They’ve been here thousands of years, and play a vital role in the local ecosystem (their grazing maintains the land and prevents forest fires) and the community. “Most breeds of sheep are bred for meat, wool or milk. Grazalema sheep are a good source of all them,” says Stuart. Indeed, between the 17th and 19th centuries, Grazalema was one of Spain’s main sources of wool.
By the late 20th century, however, the breed was registered as endangered and put on the Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity list. Establishing their Payoyo dairy in 1995, Andalusians Andrés Piña and Carlos Ríos set out to preserve both the area’s historic cheesemaking methods, and its imperilled livestock. “They wanted to make cheese in the traditional, artisan way,” says Stuart, “and this was a good way of also supporting the breed.”
Though the yield is low, the quality of milk Grazalema ewes produce is beyond compare, thanks to the high, fertile pastures. Using the same methods employed by shepherds and goatherds through the centuries, the rennet is made and poured into moulds by hand, and the curds gently pressed: more gently than they are with manchego, making for a crumblier texture. The rind is then covered with a mixture of pork lard and wheatgerm: a local grain heralded here as a ‘health food’, but which at the Payoyo dairy is a nod to the cheesemaking of yesteryear.
Back then, the making of cheese would have coincided with harvest time, and “the mound of harvested crop would have provided the stable conditions in which the cheese could be kept to mature.” These were the days before the advent of cheese rooms or fridges to control temperature and humidity, Stuart continues, so the young cheese would have been buried inside the mound of wheat. Today, the wheatgerm rind is largely symbolic – “a history note” as he puts it, though it does provide a slight maltiness to the taste and adds crunch to the texture.
“I wouldn’t pair it with too much,” he cautions. “Keep it simple, and let the cheese shine.” Some good bread, toasted, or fresh figs or grapes should do the trick – though if meat’s non-negotiable a delicately cured lomo will work nicely, says Tom Robertson, who works with Brindisa’s cured meats. As for drinks, Stuart’s money is on manzanilla sherry “ice cold, for light, fresh, summery fruit flavours – or maybe a sweet pedro ximénez sherry as part of a dessert cheeseboard.”
We enjoy it on its own, because we’re impatient and because it’s too early to be popping the cork. Needless to say, it’s everything we expected: a cheese which looks like a cheese, tastes like a cheese, feels like a cheese – yet in one of those bizarre quirks food can throw at you sometimes, sounds a lot like an almond torte.