Manchego and Impossible Dreams

Cheese 4 Ewe

Made in the La Mancha region of Spain, Manchego sheep’s milk cheese brought me back to dairy – and made me wonder why I left it behind in the first place.

I met the viejo or 12-month aged version of this flavorful sheep’s milk cheese at The Cheese Lady Farmington, one of six stores in a Muskegon, Michigan-based franchise*. As a downtown Farmington resident, I am unduly excited when any business opens its doors in my neighborhood, but I walked into this one with some trepidation.

Because of the increasingly painful consequences, I studiously avoided cheese. My lactase levels failed in my early 30s, and after more than 20 years, lactase supplements no longer seemed to work. I had resigned myself to a life without cheese.

Cheese Lady founder Kathleen Fagan Riegler assured me that many of her lactose intolerant** customers had eaten sheep’s milk cheese with no trouble at all. And it turned out I was one of those people.

As a cheesemonger (ironic, right?), I get a kick out of telling people that I’m lactose intolerant. But I never paid much attention to what it meant until I stumbled across a fascinating and science-y study of sheep’s milk published in Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Safety (accessed through the Wiley Online Library).

While I am no academic, this came through loud and clear: cow, goat, and sheep milk all have about the same amount of lactose.

Size matters

So … why doesn’t Manchego raise hell with my digestive system?

I found an answer here:

“Sheep milk and goat milk have high concentrations of fat globules, which are smaller than cow milk; these globules diameters average are approximately 3.6 and 3.0 μm against 4.0 μm, respectively (Gantner and others 2015; Balthazar and others 2017). Moreover, agglutinin (Ed. Note: which causes particles to coagulate) is absent in sheep milk and goat milk, providing better digestibility compared to cow milk (Park and others 2007).”

Of course, the earlier and the better cheese is digested, the less likely it is to raise havoc with the bacteria in the large intestine, which is what causes the unpleasant symptoms.

Another school of thought links dairy discomfort to casein sensitivity. Sheep’s milk and goat’s milk have less of a certain type of casein than cow’s milk.

In short, I honestly don’t know anymore whether I’m “lactose intolerant,” but the phrase provides a convenient handle for a complex topic. We do this so often, in all areas of our lives. And in oversimplifying, we miss so much.

Cheese was my impossible dream, a mouth-watering delight that I was afraid to enjoy until one person with a passion for it encouraged me to just try.

That’s what I’m asking you to do: just try. Whatever your impossible dream happens to be, give it a shot. Read. Research. Find alternatives. Test boundaries. Risk a little discomfort in the service of a broader view, a richer world.

A world with Manchego. Yum.

About the cheese: Remember Don Quixote? He and this raw sheep’s milk cheese come from the La Mancha region of central Spain, south of Madrid.

Manchego is a protected cheese, meaning it must be produced within a certain region and meet standards for size, shape, aging, and other characteristics. It’s distinctly “woven” rind is inedible, but looks beautiful on a cheese plate.

I have only sampled the curado or young (3-month) and viejo or aged (12-month); I prefer the aged because of its nutty, sweet flavor, salty finish, and melt-on-the-tongue texture. The more pliable curado tastes a bit grassy with a distinctive sheep tang. Try topping a slice of either with a little pear jam and a Marcona almond.

• Full disclosure, I am now employed by The Cheese Lady Farmington.

** Lactose intolerance (LI) is the inability to digest lactose, a natural sugar found in milk due to the lack of sufficient lactase, an enzyme. It causes digestive symptoms such as bloating, gas, and diarrhea. A milk allergy, on the other hand, creates dangerous and even life-threatening symptoms as the body’s immune system attacks milk proteins.