A cherished ancient Pyrenees sheep’s milk cheese
Said to be one of the first cheeses ever made, Ossau-Iraty is a beloved gem with a rich history. Once upon a time, or so the story goes, the Greek God Apollo had a son named Aristee, a shepherd, who turned the milk from his herd of sheep into this delicious cheese. Although an actual Greek God may not have invented Ossau-Iraty, the wheels are made according to a tradition that dates back some 3,000 years. This means Ossau-Iraty predates the English alphabet.
Ossau-Iraty is produced in two regions in the southwest of France along the Spanish border—in the Northern Basque Country’s Irati beech forest and in Bearn’s neighboring Ossau Valley. The two places lie in the green rolling foothills of the Western Pyrenees, and they’re the namesake for the cheese.
Producing Ossau-Iraty has been a vital part of the region’s economy for a very long time. Pyrenees sheep’s milk cheeses have been included in records as early as the first century, where they were bought and sold at markets in Toulouse. Monks often produced wheels in their monasteries. By the 14th century, sheep’s milk cheese was considered a currency. Shepherds and farmers could pay bills and taxes with wheels of cheese.
Ossau-Iraty received AOC status in 1980, making it only one of two sheep’s milk cheeses with this status—the other is Roquefort. It’s sometimes called the “farmer’s dessert” for its creamy and buttery texture and its fruity, slightly floral flavor. We love it for dessert—and pretty much any time. Ossau-Iraty was granted European PDO status in 1996.
Delicious and Versatile
Jessica Affatato, owner of Harbor Cheese & Provisions on Long Island, NY, has been a fan of Ossau Iraty since she began working in cheese nearly a decade ago. “It was one of the first cheeses I learned to talk about with customers,” she says. “People know the quality—it’s a great go-to at every counter.”
And for good reason. Beneath its hay-colored, mold-dappled rind, Ossau-Iraty reveals a smooth ivory paste. The semi-firm cheese has notes of toasted wheat, roasted nuts, fresh grass and wildflowers. Its aromas are pleasantly buttery and sweet. As it ages, the cheese’s texture changes, losing its creamy yield and developing calcium crystals that result in a wonderful subtle crunch. The wheels get sharper and saltier with age—the young cheeses are pliable, and the older ones can become hard enough to grate. No matter its age, Ossau-Iraty is rich, complex and satisfying.
Christine Clark, who teaches cheese classes at Murray’s Cheese in New York City, loves tasting Ossau-Iraty with her students. The cheese is “intriguing and unique, but not aggressive,” she says. “It has an echo of gaminess, but still is creamy, smooth and easy going. There’s also a slight flavor of cashew and cooked vegetables that you’ll get in some wheels, which I love.”
Clark likes to pair slices with a tannic red wine, which tends to overwhelm a lot of other cheeses, but not this one. “Ossau-Iraty stands as one of the most pairable cheeses around,” she says. It’s also lovely with a juicy Bordeaux, a robust red Rhône or a tawny Port.”
Ossau-Iraty is a welcome addition to any cheese platter served beside fruits like juicy figs or ripe pears, with cured meats such as dry sausages and prosciutto, or with fresh vegetables and olives. Black cherry jam, preferably from the nearby village of Itxassou, is a classic accompaniment.
It’s also a superb melter; Ossau-Iraty makes a mean grilled cheese sandwich and takes a cheeseburger to the next level. We love the cheese shaved in an arugula salad or atop soups and stews.
Traditions Meet and Merge
The ancient practice of transhumance is still thriving in this region, whereby shepherds take their sheep high into mountain pastures during the summer months to graze on the season’s abundant grasses and wildflowers. During this time, cheesemakers transform the fresh sheep’s milk into cheese in mountain huts known as “cayolar,” where the shepherds live during the summer. The cheeses crafted in the summer are often prized; the flavors of the fresh grasses translate into a beautiful complexity in the cheese.
When the temperatures turn cold, the sheep and shepherds descend to the lower slopes and their farm. Milk for production of Ossau-Iraty comes from the local breeds of sheep, Manech Tête Noir, Tête Rousse and Basco-béarnaises. The cheesemaking process reflects and celebrates the natural cycle of the animals and the land.
Ossau-Iraty is a single cheese that melds tradition from two neighboring but distinct places. The Basque-type cheese from the Irati forest is called Ardi
Gasna, which means “sheep’s cheese” in Basque. These wheels tend to be smaller; they weigh in at about 5 pounds. The unctuous sheep’s milk curds are warmed and drained until very dry in the vat before being pressed into wheels. These cheeses tend to be firmer and drier than their Ossau Valley counterparts. There’s also an Irati Forrest practice of aging cheeses near the chimney for a smoky flavor. This is the tradition from which the cheese Idiazabal is born.
Nearby in the Ossau Valley, the terrain is more mountainous, the climate is colder and more humid. The wheels made here tend to be twice as big, about 10 pounds. These cheeses have a more complex process of being aged—they are left to mature in humid caves, sometimes underground, where they are brushed with salted water. According to age-old practice, the affineurs are paid for their work in cheese; they receive one wheel for every 12 that they expertly age.
The Ossau-Iraty we see is usually a fusion of these two customs. The wheels come in two sizes. The small one has a diameter of about 8 inches and weighs between 4.5 and 6.5 pounds. The larger size has a diameter about 10 inches and weighs about 9 to 11 pounds. The cheese is made with raw milk from the local sheep, with bright red and black heads; they’re stunning. Wheels must age for 80 to 120 days.
In 2011, a 10-month old Ossau-Iraty from Fromagerie Agour, a family-owned business in the southwest of France, was named World’s Best Cheese at the World Cheese Awards in Birmingham, England. Five years later in 2016, the cheese won the award again.
Agour was founded in 1981, and it’s the last family-run dairy in Basque country. “We have a strong, close relationship with our farmers,” says Diane Sauvage, the North America branch director for the company. “We make a cheese that celebrates a strong sense of terroir.” When the late Jean Etxeleku founded the company, his goal was to maintain the rich traditions while innovating to keep up with a changing, growing market. Back then, 15 family farmers combined their milk for Agour’s Ossau-Iraty. Today, that number is 130.
The local community is flourishing. “They live well, even if they’re in the middle of the mountains,” Sauvage says.
Agour is not the only producer of this excellent cheese. Around eight major dairies and co-operatives craft Ossau-Iraty. They get their milk supply from 2,000 small farms in the region. Sauvage explains, “It’s the perfect place for sheep to graze.”
We love savoring and sharing this ancient, complex, and delicious cheese, as people have for a millennia. CC