Basque Esquirrou

There is a reason Esquirrou (pronounced ehs-keer-oo and meaning ‘bell’ in france’s béarnaise dialect) bested a record-breaking 3,402 entries from 26 countries in the 2018 World Championship Cheese Contest, held in Madison, WI.

“When you think about Savencia, you think about production. But this cheese is winning, and we produce less than 80,000 pounds a year because it’s a small production cheese,” says Sebastian Lehembre, Savencia’s senior brand manager. “This recognition is a testimony to the animals and cheese maker.”

A hard Ossau Iraty, this cheese is made using the milk of the Manech and Basco-bearnaise ewes in France’s southwestern Basque region that is collected locally from about 300 farms within a 50-mile radius of the plant. This is in accordance with the PDO designation (Protected Denomination of Origin) for which the cheese holds a seal.

Due to the milk’s seasonality, production for Esquirrou runs from November to July.

Aged for six months or more, Esquirrou features an amber rind that contains a rich, savory paste with nutty notes and a toasted wheat aroma.

The cheese is made from milk taken from two breeds of ewes, and feeding is strict to maintain the PDO designation.

“We want the best quality, so we work with a certain number of farmers, and don’t bring in milk from other parts of France or Europe,” says Lehembre.

While most Ossau Iraty cheeses are produced in wheels of between 10 and 15 pounds, Esquirrou is made in 5-pound wheels, which Lehembre says enhances the flavor profile.

“The cheese is smaller in format but still within PDO regulations,” says Lehembre.

In addition to notes of wheat, it also has grass and hay in its flavor.

“When you look at it, it’s a hard cheese, but once it’s in the mouth, it softens,” says Lehembre.

Esquirrou is not a new cheese; Savencia’s Ossau Iraty has been produced for about three decades following all the PDO rules and regulations.

“It’s produced from animals that are grass fed, making sure the ewes are milked only at certain times of the year,” says Lehembre.

When Savencia first launched Esquirrou in the U.S. in 2017, the cheese was only available in Wegmans stores.

“We went to see Cathy Gaffney, (director of the specialty cheese, deli and kosher deli departments at Wegmans Food Markets, headquartered in Rochester, NY), and she fell in love with it,” says Lehembre.

The remainder of 2017, Esquirrou was only available at Wegmans.

“Because it was available in the U.S., we were able to enter Esquirrou in the Wisconsin cheese competition,” says Lehembre. “But now its availability is more widespread, including Whole Foods and Fresh Market.”

In terms of serving recommendations, Esquirrou says this cheese is great as part of a cheese platter and with either fresh fruit or preserves like cherry.

Bringing out its special flavor is not difficult, either with complimentary foods or all by itself. Everyone can enjoy Esquirrou.

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