The Basque region that straddles the border between France and Spain is renowned for its alpine sheep cheeses. The lush green mountains of the Western Pyrenees that have preserved Basque culture have also preserved the cheese-making tradition of the region. Basque cheeses are arguably the most ancient, with evidence of cheese-making dating back 4,000 years.
Though you can find cow and goat milk cheeses in Basque Country, sheep milk cheeses make up the overwhelming majority. Manech and Basco-Béarnaise are the local breeds of sheep that have evolved to thrive in the Pyrenees’ terrain. Basque cheeses are referred to simply in Euskara (the language spoken of the Basque people) as Ardi Gasna, which translates to “our cheese,” or “local cheese.” To add one more layer of confusion, the French refer to this style of cheeses as “brebis” literally, “sheep.”
Last fall we visited our Idiazabel producers at La Leze. Idiazabel is the “Ardi Gasna” of Spanish Basque Country. The Ardi Gasna of French Basque Country is Ossau-Iraty-Brebis Pyrenees – one of only two sheep-milk cheeses granted AOC status (the other being Roquefort.) Though the cheeses have many names, the styles of production are simple, traditional, and nearly identical on either side of the border.
Transhumance is a defining way of life for Basque shepherds. Between May and September, shepherds follow their herds on horseback up the mountain. While the sheep graze on fresh alpine grasses, the shepherds live in small stone huts called “cayolars.” The shepherds milk the sheep and make cheese while living in the mountain cayolars. International demand for Ossau Iraty has flooded the market with industrial versions of this cheese, typically made with milk from a cooperative of farmers as opposed to being farmstead, and made during the winter months when the sheep are eating hay.
We are happy to bring in a farmstead Ossau Iraty d’Estive, which is only made between May and September while the sheep are happily grazing in the mountains. Only a few hundred wheels of Ossau Iraty are given the “Estive” designation every year. The flavor is much more intense and meaty than most Ossau-Iratys, with a heady nose of tamari and chestnuts, and butter yellow paste. The richness of the paste is moderated with a bit of acidity, which develops into a long floral finish.
Pitxun arrived at Great Ciao last week, and is another example of a great Basque sheep milk cheese. The small wheel (only 3 inches in diameter and 2 inches tall) is similar in form to P’tit Basque. Unlike p’tit basque, Pitxun is a farmstead cheese made raw milk. The paste is semi-firm and creamy white, nutty sweet and clean milky flavors encapsulate everything we enjoy about cheeses from Basque country.