On Location: Ossau-Iraty in the Pays Basque

Wisconsin Cheese Originals Basque Tour

Every two years, I pick a place in the world where I’d love to meet cheesemakers, taste their cheeses and learn their culture. And then I talk 19 people into going with me. This year, my Wisconsin Cheese Originals international trip is to the Basque Country of France and Spain, and our first visit was to a farmstead producer of Ossau-Iraty in the Pays Basque of France.

Ossau-Iraty is a Protected Designation of Origin cheese (PDO), which means it may only be produced in a precisely defined geographical area in southwest France from the milk of three breeds of sheep: Manech Tête noire (Black Face Manech), Manech Tête Rousse (Red Face Manech) and Basco-Béarnaise.

Wisconsin Cheese Originals Basque Tour

Jean-Francois Tambourin and his son, Michel, greeted us at their farm in Saint-Étienne-de-Baïgorry, where they milk 300 sheep from December to July. When we visited, the sheep were just beginning to be rounded up from the mountains, where they had spent the summer after drying up from milking. The ewes will give birth again in November, the lambs will be pulled from the mothers and sold in time for Christmas dinner, and the ewes will give milk until mid-summer.

Wisconsin Cheese Originals Basque Tour

All of the milk from the Tambourins’ sheep is made into an annual production of 10 tonnes, or about 22,000 pounds of Ossau-Iraty, using a 200-gallon vat. The Tambourin family, which also consists of Jean-Francois’ wife, Noel, and their second son, Guillaume, milk Red Face Manech sheep, a breed that has adapted to the high altitude and temperature changes of the Pyrenees mountains. They also keep a few Blonde d’Aquitaine beef cows for meat production.

The Tambourin farm is located in a small commune in the Pyrénées-Atlantiques department in southwestern France, and consists of 12 farms. Each farmer owns between 22-40 acres, and all practice transhumance, the practice of moving animals from one mountain pasture to another in a seasonal cycle, typically from lower pastures in the winter to higher pastures in summer. The Tambourins paint a small red and green marking on their sheep in a specific pattern to distinguish their flock from their neighbors, which is important when it’s time to bring the sheep down from the mountains and back into each farmer’s barn for winter lambing. Lambs are sold when they weigh 11 kilograms, or 24 pounds, and most end up on the Christmas platter of Spanish families as milk-fed lamb.

The Tambourins milk their sheep in a modern parlor made by DeLaval, and in one hour, two people can milk 280 ewes. Cheese is made every two days into Ossau-Iraty, an uncooked, pressed raw-milk cheese, and aged a minimum of 80 days. The fat and dry matter content of the cheese are also fixed at 50 percent and 58 percent, respectively, and all farmstead-produced wheels carry a special sheep face-shaped brand in the top of the wheel, marked with an F.

Whey from cheesemaking is fed to hogs on the farm, located down the hill from the commune, and housed in huts with roofs made from mountain ferns.

Wisconsin Cheese Originals Basque Tour

Ossau-Iraty made at the Tambourin farm is sold in a small retail shop right on the farm, as well as at farmers’ markets and festivals. While producing a PDO cheese is more expensive than making a cheese which does not carry an appellation name (farmers must pay 8 Euros per every 1,000 liters of milk produced to the Ossau-Iraty PDO syndicate for help with promotion), Jean-Francois said they chose to become part of the Ossau-Iraty syndicate because of the help they receive in promoting their cheese. Ossau-Iraty is a relatively new PDO cheese, achieving its protected status in 1996. The mountain cheese recipe, however, is ancient, and is believed to be hundreds of years old.

Here’s a curious thing about the texture and flavor of Ossau-Iraty: it varies widely. We tasted both 4-month and 7-month wheels at the Tambourin farm, and both were exquisite – sweet, creamy and buttery with rinds that even tasted sweet. The next day, we went to a different farm in a different region, and tasted the Ossau-Iraty made at the local cooperative, and it was much drier and full of pea-sized holes.

This is because, even as a PDO cheese, the texture and flavor of Ossau-Iraty is allowed to vary significantly. In a very informative presentation to our tour group (which by the way, took place in the middle of a sheep barn, with the projector placed on a portable table), Celine Barrere, Secretaire Generale of the Ossau-Iraty Syndicate, revealed that aging techniques vary widely between regions.

In the Basque Country, aging cellars for Ossau-Iraty are dry, whereas in Béarn, they are more humid. In the Basque Country, the affineur rubs cheeses with a dry brush, while the Béarnais affineur coats the crust with salt water and a damp towel. These different aging techniques, which are obviously profoundly different, help explain the taste and visual differences between the Basque Ossau-Iraty and the Ossau-Iraty Bearnais. Also keep in mind that Ossau-Iraty is made by 150 different farmstead producers and 20 different cooperatives, with milk supplied by 1,300 farms.

At the Tambourin farm, located in Basque Country, all members of the family are well-versed in all aspects of the operation – farming, cheesemaking and cheese-aging, with no one person particularly specializing in any one aspect. In fact, this particular family is the 8th generation to milk sheep and make cheese on the estate, and their family’s house, or etxea (pronounced etch-A), dates back to 1778.

In Basque culture, the etxea is extremely important, For Basques, the mere thought of selling their home, or even a piece of their land, is shameful. In fact, under ancient laws, the Basque etxea had the same properties as an embassy or a church; it was out of the reach of the law and, if a family member was wanted for a serious crime, police had no right to enter the house. In the modern world, the etxea retains its cultural status, but is not above the law.

Even the look of a Basque etxea varies significantly within each of the seven different Basque provinces. In a shop in the tiny village of Ainhoa, France, I found a display showing the seven different styles of Basque etxea, in miniature form.

basque houses

Alas, I digress. Back to Ossau-Iraty. When I asked Jean-Francois how he would describe the cheese he makes on his farm, he gave me a smile, flexed a muscle in his forearm, and then said a short exchange in Basque. When I turned to the interpreter (an older, deeply Catholic and extremely proper French woman), she blushed, and said, “He says that a good cheese is like a man. The outside is quite tough. The inside is quite tender.”

A huge thank you to the Tambourin family for your hospitality!