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New Sheep Shop Café on a South Woodbury Homestead Gathers the Herd


Published April 23, 2024 at 1:51 p.m.
Updated April 24, 2024 at 10:07 a.m.

Lemon tart and sheep's milk espresso cheesecake with a latte - JORDAN BARRY ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Jordan Barry ©️ Seven Days
  • Lemon tart and sheep's milk espresso cheesecake with a latte

When I arrived at South Woodbury's Sheep Shop Café on a rainy early April day, I assumed I'd traveled the farthest to reach it, coming from Vergennes. I was wrong. A visitor from the West Coast who was still in town after the eclipse had me beat. But the competition for the shortest travel time had a clear winner, despite many local challengers: Two contractors working on the roof climbed down for midmorning cappuccinos and slices of sheep's milk espresso cheesecake.

For all of us, the draws were decadent yet delicate treats, a strong cup of coffee and a good slice of community. Just more than a month after its March 7 opening, the Victorian-style café serves all of that, plus luxurious sheep's milk soaps, scrubs and candles.

Marie-Hélène Bélanger and Marcial Rodriguez-Arenal have been selling Bélanger's handcrafted goods on their 11-acre homestead since 2020, when they expanded from the online business they started in 2018. Their tiny store occupied the front of what's now the café, and Bélanger made her soaps and bath fizzes in the back.

Inside the Sheep Shop Café - JORDAN BARRY ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Jordan Barry ©️ Seven Days
  • Inside the Sheep Shop Café

"Our bestsellers were Marie-Hélène's sister's baked goods and merguez lamb sausage," Rodriguez-Arenal said with a bright, easy laugh. "People love to eat and drink."

To make the Sheep Shop more sustainable, the couple and their son, Marcialito, shifted the production area into a spare bedroom of their attached house and opened the diminutive café in its place. Instead of soap curing, the room now smells of coffee. A floral rug and an antique pastry case replaced drying racks. But milk from the family's small herd of East Friesian-cross sheep still has the starring role, both in the products on the shelves and in several of the cakes, tarts, quiches and scones made by Bélanger's sister, Sarah Bélanger-Molina.

The menu changes every week, Bélanger-Molina later told me by phone from her home in St. Johnsbury. She became her family's "official baker" after precociously deciding to make profiteroles at age 12, having never baked before, she said. "They came out pretty well, and it became a passion for my whole life." Until the Sheep Shop, she'd never done it professionally.

Sheep from the Sheep Shop herd - JORDAN BARRY ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Jordan Barry ©️ Seven Days
  • Sheep from the Sheep Shop herd

The Québec-born sisters are trained musicians — Bélanger, a pianist, and Bélanger-Molina, a violinist. They often played together, Bélanger-Molina said, and she followed her older sister to New York City and then to Vermont, where Bélanger once ran a music school.

Their current collaboration started with Bélanger-Molina making sheep's milk caramel sauce to sell in the original shop. It was so popular that she moved on to desserts, which inspired the café.

Bélanger-Molina now bakes three or four days per week for the Sheep Shop, exploring new recipes and creating some of her own. She always makes a quiche and usually includes cheesecake and scones served with different butters. The day of my visit, the caramelized shallot-and-Manchego scones had jalapeño-honey butter on the side; last week's Manchego-and-ham scones came with maple butter.

"Baking lets me tap into that creativity inside of me, which I did when I was a musician," Bélanger-Molina said. "And for the first time, I'm doing something that doesn't feel like work."

A recent trip to the Dominican Republic inspired her to make a tres leches cake, which she flavored with pistachio and rose. As she often does, Bélanger-Molina swapped in fatty sheep's milk for the cow's milk or cream the recipe called for. It doesn't really impart flavor, she said. "I just love making it a little bit different. My sister makes such great products with sheep milk, why not bring it to the food, too?"

Sheep from the Sheep Shop herd - JORDAN BARRY ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Jordan Barry ©️ Seven Days
  • Sheep from the Sheep Shop herd

The sheep's milk addition is what caught my eye while I was hemming and hawing in front of the pastry case. Rodriguez-Arenal was already making me a latte ($4). After struggling to choose among the elegant treats displayed on cake stands and under glass cloches, I finally ordered a slice of the deep-brown sheep's milk espresso cheesecake ($6.50). To satisfy my indecisiveness, I added a slice of lemon tart with lavender-scented crust and mascarpone whipped cream ($6.50).

Each dessert was both rich and light, perfectly whipped where it needed to be and full of delicately balanced flavors. I alternated bites, giving up halfway through and requesting a box for the drive home.

Other customers soon arrived, and the classical music was drowned out by the cross-table chatter of friends old and new — and the hum and hiss of the espresso machine.

Rodriguez-Arenal deftly poured drink after drink, despite having only recently picked up the job of barista. Bélanger took a break from soapmaking to run the register when the café got busy. Their son usually helps serve, but he was "on strike" and playing outside, Rodriguez-Arenal said.

The couple moved to their South Woodbury homestead from New York City — where Rodriguez-Arenal was a paramedic for a fire department — during a snowstorm in late December 2006. They had no success with keeping sheep in the early days, he said, having "put the cart before the horse."

Inside the Sheep Shop Café - JORDAN BARRY ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Jordan Barry ©️ Seven Days
  • Inside the Sheep Shop Café

In 2011, the couple was trying to have a baby "and nothing was working," Rodriguez-Arenal continued. "We decided to get lambs and a guardian dog, and right off the bat, Marie-Hélène got pregnant. It worked."

The family's herd included five ewes when I visited, plus a ram that would leave the following week to join Vermont Shepherd's herd in Westminster West. Sheltering from the drizzle at the front of the property, the friendly sheep came out to greet me and happily munched on a pile of hay.

The ewes will have their lambs in the summer, Rodriguez-Arenal said. East Friesians are known for their high milk production but not their hardiness, so they're better off avoiding the cold. When the lambs arrive, the homestead will be in full bloom: lilacs first, then gardens full of other flowers in front of the café. Outdoor seating there and in the cherry and apple orchard will overlook the sheep's pasture.

I headed home after a few sheep snuggles, with my leftovers and several of Bélanger's bath products on the seat beside me. The promise of lambs and lilacs — and more of the Sheep Shop's delightful treats — will bring me back.

The original print version of this article was headlined "See You at the Sheep Shop | New café on a South Woodbury homestead gathers the herd"

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