It’s no secret that many a cheesemaker would love to produce product from sheep’s milk. It’s prized not only for its fat and protein content, it has twice as much as most cow’s or goat’s milk, but also for the nutty aromas and savory flavors that its cheese develops in aged wheels.
However, raising sheep for dairy is a complex business. It takes patience, investment and knowledge of breeds to coordinate milk production in an animal that naturally has a short lactation period.
This is where European makers excel, with hundreds, if not thousands, of years of experience to call upon. One of the star areas for sheep’s cheese is the Pyrenees, the lush and fertile mountain range that boarders both France and Spain.
Of all the cheeses to be enjoyed within this special strip of geography there is one that is beloved of cheesemongers for its versatility and herbaceous flavors—that of Ossau-Iraty.
Like the little black dress, Ossau-Iraty never goes out of style. It is produced in the Northern Basque Country’s Irati beech forest and in Bearn’s neighboring Ossau Valley in the Western Pyrenees.
Its flavors can change with the seasons thanks to the dedication of shepherds who move their sheep herds to graze in different pastures, in summer they sit high in the mountains and in winter they move to lower slopes.
This practice, known as transhumance, results in nutty and fruity aromas in the cheeses produced during the winter months, while the summer cheeses tend to reveal aromas of grass and flowers.
The result is cheese that is very ‘morish’, one that’s hard to resist taking another slice of when already several have been devoured.
According to the Ossau-Iraty syndicate, the body that oversees its AOP status, there are some 175 farmers and around 15 cheese dairies or refiners that produce Ossau-Iraty AOP cheeses. In 2020 it was due to celebrate its 40th anniversary of AOP status but the celebrations were put on ice due to COVID.
Therefore, the syndicate is thrilled that this spring and summer saw the return of its popular cheese route, which encourages visitors to meet producers and learn more about the making of the cheese by attending events.
It also offers the opportunity to discover dairies that have recently joined the AOP ranks, as the syndicate welcomes new members every year who want to have their high standards given an official seal of approval.
“The name Ossau-Iraty is synonymous with quality, it is a classic of the Pyrénées cheeses.” says Svetlana Kukharchuk, otherwise known as The Cheese Lady.
Kukharchuk started her ‘journey with cheese’ at the New York foodie destination Murray’s where she organized tasting sessions and events. Following a move to Scotland, she opened her own shop, The Cheese Lady, first in St Andrew’s before relocating to East Lothian.
It was the food writer Steven Jenkins’ 1996 book, “Cheese Primer”, that introduced her to Ossau-Iraty, and it has remained a firm favorite.
“I totally think it’s a crowd pleaser. When people have a little bit of doubt as to whether they like sheep’s milk cheese or not, I let them try it, and they see just how beautiful it is. It’s smooth, it’s nutty, it’s caramel-like, and there’s nothing not to like about it,” she says. “I think it’s a very friendly cheese that can be used in different ways. It will shine on the cheese board, because it’s such an incredible complex cheese, but also you can cook with it if you want. It will melt nicely; it will add flavor and intensity. It doesn’t really go out of style.”
Ossau-Iraty is an uncooked and pressed cheese with a semi-hard texture. It does indeed look fabulous on a cheese board, ivory in color, which gives an indication of its creamy and buttery texture.
Kukharchuk adds there is an exciting flavor palate to explore due to the different scales of production and maturation. While the small batch product from artisanal cheesemakers will always be highly sought after, there are many larger producers that stand out for their award-winning product.
Esquirrou is an award-winning sheep milk Ossau Iraty P.D.O. cheese made by Viroflay, France-based Savencia Fromage & Dairy, a subsidiary of Savencia Cheese USA. Receiving World’s Best Cheese 2018, it is crafted in the Basque region of France and made from Manech ewe’s milk before being aged six months. Its unique texture has some nutty notes as well as a pleasing toasted wheat aroma. Its amber rind wraps around the firm ivory insides.
Another favorite for American cheese importers is the Onetik dairy, based in the Basque Country village Macaye. The dairy, which sits at the foot of the Pyrenees Mountains, collects milk from the Berria Cooperative farmers. It uses traditional methods handed down through generations to create its cheeses.
Such is the dairy’s dedication to preserving historic pasture farming that it continues to collect milk from remote areas even though they are often difficult to reach. Caputo, the legendary deli in Salt Lake City, has been buying in Onetik’s gold medal winning Ossau-Iraty since 2008.
“We are quite dedicated to Onetik, specifically the mild Ossau,” enthuses Matt Caputo, the deli’s co-owner with his sister Yelena.
“We have tried several others but this one responds best to affinage in our cave. We sell two versions. One is part of our Revived program. It rests in a cool and humid environment for roughly one month before sale. This allows it to revive to the condition it was in before its punishingly, dry Atlantic journey.
“The second version is part of our Transformed program, where the cheese is allowed to rest for a full six months. This extra time and daily care such as flipping and brushing, to control mites, causes the cheese to develop new and distinct flavors and textures.
“Tyrosine and leucine crystals form as one would expect of an extra aged Gruyere, as well as flavors sweet and nutty showcasing the fact this cheese is a cousin to Alpine cheeses in many regards. We call this version our Ossau Iraty Reserve. It is sold at a premium and sells out very quickly upon release from the caves.”
A Perfect Pairing
Clearly there are many varieties for customers to enjoy discovering. However, for any cheese devotee the eating is elevated by the matching with other food and drink.
Fortunately, Ossau Iraty is one of the most adaptable cheeses when it comes to pairings, especially wine. It works equally well with red and white wines, such as Zinfandel, Tempranillo or Syrah.
Savencia’s Esquirrou pairs well with a glass of Bordeaux, which brings out the grassy flavors of the Basque country.
“A lot of people think that red wine goes with all cheese but that’s not always the case,” Kukharchuk notes. “We know now that white wine works better for some cheese but when it comes to Ossau-Iraty, it’s especially good with a wine from Bordeaux. You can kind of play with the maturity of the cheese and the maturity of the Bordeaux.”
This broad suitability with different wines is part of the charm for Caputo, who describes the cheese as being ‘in love’ with so many nectars.
“From Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir to the whites of Alsace, Ossau will shine,” he enthuses.
“Pairing our Ossau Reserve with an Alsatian Riesling will bring in some tertiary flavors of both tropical fruits and caramel. On the other hand, the younger version of Ossaua will even play nicely with cheap Chianti. [The cheese is] so good and so easy to pair with wine.”
It’s not just wine that Caputo encourages customers to pair with Ossau-Iraty, but also to try unexpected taste experiences such as slices of the cheese with sour cherry preserve.
“I do love pairing it with a dark chocolate too,” he says.
“The key is to get [a chocolate] that is very lightly roasted and not worked to death. Something that is high in acid and still redolent of the tropical fruit it came from (cacao should be fruity). I often use the Chuncho bar from Cacaosuyo.”
When it comes to food pairings, Kukharchuk says she often advises her customers to try different maturities to see what they like.
“I would recommend talking to your cheesemonger,” she suggests.
“If you want to serve it on a cheese board, I wouldn’t go any younger than six months. There’s a reason why younger cheeses in supermarkets are more affordable, when you slice up cheeses and vacuum pack them it sucks some of the flavor out. It is always worth the effort to go to a cheesemonger as the cheese will be cut from the wheel, and that’s always going to make a difference.”
The appeal of sheep’s milk cheese for American consumers grows every year and again in this European dairies have the upper hand given the fall out of the USDA’s decision in 2001 to ban all imported livestock to curb the spread of diseases.
Farmers have struggled to establish sheep herds for milk production as overwhelmingly the breeds best suited to this are European. While the landscape is now changing slowly, domestic production of sheep’s cheese is still not on the same level as imports.
Like many delis across America, Caputo has grown its range of this delicious product.
“People are much more open to sheep’s milk than they used to be,” says Caputo.
“I’d say these days, customers are looking for something with a unique story and taste first. A specific milk type is not even close to the top of their list of requirements.”
This is fantastic news for Ossau-Iraty. Not only does it have a wonderful story to tell of fresh mountains and historic pastures, but a taste to match its bucolic heritage.