Wednesday, November 9, 2011


Bellwether Farms Pepato is a raw, semi-soft sheep milk cheese studded with whole peppercorns, and a flaky, yet creamy consistency. 

Cheesemaker Liam Callahan, who runs the dairy with his mother, Cindy, says he is aiming for a moister, less salty and lower-acid product than the Italian pecorino pepato, a cheese that is often too dry and intense for any use beyond grating. After a trip to Tuscany they began controlling the moisture level and acid development to make a cheese that has a much smoother mouth feel and a complex depth of flavor that retains its classic sheep characteristics. Pepato is made using the same recipe and aging techniques found outside Florence, but with whole peppercorns inside the wheel.

The raw milk is coagulated with veal rennet, an expensive input that many cheesemakers have abandoned in favor of less costly microbial coagulants. The Callahans believe the rennet yields more complexity. After coagulation and draining, the fresh curds are scooped into their molds with a scattering of whole black peppercorns; the following day, when the wheels have formed, they are salted by hand then moved to aging rooms with controlled temperature and humidity.

While the cheeses are ripening they develop a smear on the rind that contributes its own interesting and complimentary flavor. The wheels are waxed after about 2 1/2 months to prevent further moisture loss and sold about a month later. The wax is permeable, so the cheese continues to breathe and mature, just a little more slowly than it would with a natural rind.

Despite the steps Callahan has taken to make the Pepato more approachable, it remains a cheese with a bold personality. The peppercorn aroma dominates, along with the scents of sheep, lamb chops, bacon and wet stone. The flavor is moderately piquant, not sharp, with a tart, tangy finish.

You could shave Pepato into a green salad with sliced fennel, or nibble on it before dinner with some olives and a glass of dry sherry. On an end-of-meal cheese board, it calls for a generous red wine, such as a full-fruited, grapy Zin with a blackberry aroma and smooth tannins.

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