A Visit to our Idiazabal Producer in Basque Country
Last month, I had the good fortune of being able to travel toSpainon Great Ciao business. Over the course of one week (and nine flights) I traveled throughGaliciaand Basque country to visit seafood canneries, salt-cod producers, and cheesemakers. The next few newsletters will introduce you to a few of our favorite producers from this part of the world.
I tasted La Leze’s Idiazabal on my first day of work at Great Ciao. Until that point, the Idiazabal I knew was bland, over-smoked and industrial. Most of what comes to theU.S.is made from commodity sheep milk, as opposed to being farmstead. But the one I tasted that day was dense and rich, with a grassy sweetness and an aroma of lanolin and toasted walnuts. Fast-forward two years later – nearly to the day, I was standing at the front door of Jose Mari and Elisabeth’s farmhouse, shaded by the mountains that separate Basque country from the Navarra region. It’s a one hour drive southwest of Bilboa to La Leze. The name of the farm, translates to “the cave,” which refers to a huge crevice in the mountain, directly over their farm. The cave is visible from a mile away.
In the case of Jose Mari and Elisabeth, cheese-making skipped a generation. His grandfather was a mountain shepherd who made Idiazabal, but his father left shepherding to pursue factory work in the city. Elisabeth’s father owned a bakery in a nearby village. Unhappy with city life, they decided to go back to their family roots of making cheese, and today their farm stands a few hundred feet from the house where his mother was born.
At any given time, La Leze is home to 400-500 Latxa sheep, a breed well suited to the rocky mountainous terrain of Basque country. Shepherding and cheese-making are part of a continuous cycle. In January, the baby lambs are born. From mid-December to mid-June, thirty wheels of cheese are made every day. Because the make-process involves using cultured milk from the day before, there are no days-off until the season is over. In the spring the sheep are let out of the barn to go up to the mountain (which is a national park) behind there house. Jose Mari and Elisabeth have a small cabin in the mountain where they stay while the sheep are at pasture, protected by the Basque shepherd dogs – who are also born and bred on the farm. In autumn the sheep come down from the mountain, and the cycle begins again.
Acclaimed Basque Chef, Juan Mari Arzac once said on American TV that Idiazabal is “always” smoked, owing to the Basque shepherds aging the cheese in their smokey mountain huts. Following his decree, Idiazabal being exported to theUnited Stateswas smoked within an inch of its life, masking all of the sweet, nutty characteristics of sheep milk. Three out of every four wheels of Idiazabal made at La Leze are smoked, but here, the wheels are only gently smoked for a few hours over hardwood collected from the woods around their farm. This attention to detail is a trend that applied to every aspect of the work that they do: they use their own milk, they harvest their own rennet, and they do all of the cheesemaking and affinage. Their dedication has paid off; in their farm shop you can barely see the walls through the scores of awards they’ve won for their cheese. Elisabeth has also had the honor of serving as the president of the Idiazabal council for several years.
With a cheese like Idiazabal where a network of small farms work under a larger cooperative, its rare that you can choose a specific farm. In our case, the Idiazabal we import is from a cooperative named “Artzai Gazta” which literally translates to “Shepherd’s Cheese.” We tasted La Leze’s Idiazabal, and were so impressed with the quality of the cheese that today, it is the only Idiazabal we import. Meeting our producers is humbling reminder that the work we do supports people who have chosen a path of back-breaking labor because they are passionate about their craft. To have the opportunity to meet Jose Mari and Elisabeth reaffirmed that we lucked out two years ago when we first tasted their cheese.