Move over winter cheddars and gruyeres, spring puts us in the mood for rich, floral, and delicate sheep milk cheeses from the Pyrenees.
The Basque region that straddles the border between France and Spain is renowned for its alpine sheep milk 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 some of 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 spoken language 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,” which literally translates to, “sheep.”
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.
Our affineur Rodolphe le Meunier hand selects our wheels of farmstead Ossau Iraty Estive. The “Estive” designation means that these wheels are 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” title every year. Currently our wheels of Ossau Iraty Estive are from June of 2015 and are just hitting their peak flavor. The cheese itself is much more intense and meaty than the pasteurized industrial versions, with a heady nose of ripe apricots and roast lamb, and a pale buttery paste. The richness of the cheese is moderated with a bit of acidity, which develops into a long floral finish.
Rodolphe just sent us a whole pile of this tasty cheese, give us a call if you need to try it for yourself!