Sheep and Cheese

Illustration by Natasha Simkhovitch

Researching the Roman times (especially 197 AD) is so easy on the Internet.  The two main characters, Tadpole (6) and Amara (11), find themselves on a sheep farm near Lyon, France, in Chapter 10.  What did I know about sheep farming?  Next to nothing.  Thanks to the Internet, I now know a lot more.

Long ago, a boyfriend gave me a Great Pyrenees puppy.  I knew nothing about Pyrenees puppies except that they are big, soft, white, and adorable.  I learned more.  Their traditional job is guarding sheep.  Those protective instincts work well in protecting small humans, also.  My Pyr would lie next to whatever baby was outside on a blanket in the sun, keeping watch.  As the children grew, Bear (the Pyr) stayed close.  She died young, as giant dogs do.  We still miss her.Now, I’ve found out that the puppies are put with the sheep flock so they will bond with the sheep and not with people.  Their natural protective instincts kick in when predators are around.

Bear, 8 weeks old

Weighing up to 120 lbs for male Pyrenees, they are able to ward off other dogs, wolfs and bears, saving the farmers many dollars in lost revenue.  There should be more than one Pyrenees per flock.  The dogs like it when another Pyr or two or three are also on guard.

Rottweilers and some other breeds can also be used for guarding, but how about this – donkeys and llamas, too!!!  The donkeys and llamas graze on the same stuff the sheep do, which means you don’t have to feed them.   However, there can only be one llama, because if you have more, they will bond to each other and not to the sheep.

Sheep, those wonderfully woolly creatures, not only give their warm coats to us, but also their milk.  On my trip to France in April [see blog] , my friend Mary and I fell in love with sheep cheese and goat cheese.  It turns out that cheese from sheep milk has been famous, really famous, since long before Homer’s time (12th Century BC).

Homer wrote the Iliad and the Odyssey.  Here’s a one paragraph synopsis: The Iliad is the tragic story of the noble Achilles, who perfectly embodies the ancient Greek ideals of heroic conduct but also suffers from the human failings of pride and anger. The Grecian army is divided by bickering, many admirable men are killed, and even the gods quarrel. The Odyssey, by contrast, contains many comic episodes, and its hero, Odysseus, triumphs over formidable adversaries through his superior intelligence, not by brute strength. The Iliad portrays a universe marred by moral disorder, but the Odyssey shows gods punishing men for their sins and granting a good man his just reward.

[The quote is from the link highlighted “synopsis”.]

That sounds pretty modern to me.  In fact, both books retain a modern feeling in dealing with human beings, our foibles and our good points.  Surely, after 1400 years or so we have improved a little?

Cheese.  Odysseus, in the Odyssey, watches the Cyclops milk his sheep and then make cheese from it.  Homer describes the process.  I haven’t read it, but it’s on my list.

Pliny the Elder, who was governor of Gallia Narbonensis (southeastern France) around 70 AD is often quoted as saying that the sheep cheese from around Nimes is the best in the world, though it’s best eaten when fresh since it doesn’t keep long.

The boy in my book, Tadpole, comes from the Nimes area.  He loves sheep cheese but doesn’t know much about it, being more of a city boy.  In Chapter ten, on the farm near Lyon, he learns quickly.

He is given a bag made from a lamb’s stomach and taught how to milk a ewe.  The lamb’s stomach is used because the lamb has only eaten its mother’s milk until then, and the stomach is lined with rennett, which coagulates sheep milk so that it turns to cheese.  Think of the curds in a baby’s spit-up.

That’s not the only way to coagulate sheep milk.  Romans used a fresh stick from a fig tree to stir the milk.  Sap running from the stick worked the same as the rennett in the lamb’s stomach.  This is good for vegans to know, who don’t eat cheese because of animal rennett.

And there you have it, cheese and sheep.  With every place these characters go, everything they do, they teach me more and more of the way of life of all strata of society in this time period 196-200 AD.  Storytelling is fun!

Author: Victoria Paulsen

I'm writing the second of two YA novels about the Roman empire just before Septimius Severus became emperor, and just after. My background is in theater. At UCLA and Univ. of Colorado, I studied Greek and Roman drama as well as Latin. That was awhile ago. My new research is even more fascinating, thanks to the Internet. I want to share the fun stuff!

2 thoughts on “Sheep and Cheese”

  1. yup, still missing Bear. I still remember finding her in the neighbor’s yard…

    Interesting stuff about cheeses though! Now to find some sheep cheese so I can learn what it tastes like…

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