The Cheesemonger: Shepherd's Basket
Name: Shepherd's Basket
Producer: Valley Shepherd Creamery (Long Valley, NJ)
Milk: Raw Sheep's Milk
Age: 4-5 months+
Whether it is restaurants or cheesemakers, I am always wary when someone offers too many options. Maybe this is because it makes me thing of the old adage "jack of all trades, master of none", in which by trying to do too much, everything ends up being mediocre. So, when I came across Valley Shepherd Creamery, producers of about 20 different cheeses, needless to say, I was a bit suspicious.
Despite my hesitance, Valley Shepherd has a true dedication to producing high quality cheeses from their ever increasing flock of sheep. Bringing traditional cheesemaking practices back from their trips to France, Italy and Spain, most Valley Shepherd cheeses have a solid basis in a European variety. Valencay (made with a mixture of sheep and cow's milk) is their take on the ash-covered goat cheese, while other cheeses are influenced by the mountain cheeses of the French Pyrenees. Valley Shepherd are also against flavored cheeses, which I stand behind, instead letting the natural flavors of each cheese be highlighted. The few exceptions to their flavored cheese aversion are based on traditional European recipes.
My favorite of their cheeses, and one we proudly carry at the shop, is Shepherd's Basket. Made in the style of Manchego, Shepherd's Basket is everything that's missing from the real Manchego these days. It all starts with the rind; instead of a wax rind with a faux-basket texture, this cheese has a completely natural rind. As I've always said, wax is good to preserve a cheese in a singular state, but to develop flavors, nothing beats keeping it au natural. Due to the aging, the rind developes a bit of thickness to it and, though completely edible and not unpleasant in flavor, the additional chew might be off-putting to some. The interior is dense and slightly dry with a small amount of crunch.
Flavor-wise, it is very reminiscent of the recipe's originator, but I find it to be much more complex. I've made it pretty well known that I am not a huge fan of Manchego, but, as the Shepherd's Basket shows, it is a cheese that can be quite inspired when coaxed. As I taste this cheese, I'm immediately hit by a pleasant sheepy tanginess, very well rounded with only light acidity and a herby flavor which reminds me of thyme. The short finish tastes of fresh grass. Maybe because of the complexity of flavor, I find myself not wanting the membrillo or olives I'd normally recommend with Manchego. Instead, something with floral notes such as light honey or lavender jelly.
Valley Shepherd is among the local farms that, like Sprout Creek Creamery in New York, are dedicated to agricultural education. With a focus on kids, they offer not only school tours, but also a variety of festivals. There's even something for the adults, including a very interesting looking cheesemaking class, where you can make your own cheese (which they age for you to pick up later). I believe education like this is essential in producing the next generation of foodies: ones who know the connection between farm and table and make educated decisions based on that.
Valley Shepherd Cheeses are available regularly in Farmer's Markets in New York and New Jersey. Cheeses can also be ordered through their website as well as at a variety of stores in the area. For more information, check out this page.