Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Route d' Fromage

May 1st I arrived in Grenoble, France to meet up with my friend Yvonne who has a large extended family there. She had been cooking in Italy for the past six months and I had come to Europe six weeks early for my brother's wedding in Estonia (that's another story--see his blog Letters from Estonia). Our roughly sketched plan was to rent a car for a month; drive to Spain and hang out in Barcelona, La Rioja, and San Sebastian for a couple of weeks; head up to Pays Basque in France for a week or so of cheese adventures; on to Bordeaux, to visit Jean D'alos--master affineur--and to drink wine; and then back to Grenoble. Along the way we would try to hit a couple of Michelin starred restaurants and maybe stay at a few farm/bed & breakfast places. It was a pretty good plan--I speak passable Spanish (well, except on the phone) and Yvonne is almost fluent in French--and we shared the same roughly defined goals (eating and drinking well, visiting the source of the food, and laying in the sun) and degree of flexibility.

I became familiar with Basque sheep cheese from working for a few years at a cheese shop in San Francisco, Cowgirl Creamery, and from seeing it in the kitchens where I had worked as a cook. Of all the dozens of cheeses I came to know and love in my cheesemonger days I concluded that Basque sheep cheese was my favorite, specifically a few types that fall under the classification of Ossau-Iraty. While I have spent the past four years in the kitchen as a chef my true calling has always been farming, and for quite some time I've harbored the dream of raising sheep and making a Basque-style cheese. What follows is a summary of the basic information about Ossau-Iraty cheese I have gleaned over time.

A note about OSSAU-IRATY

Ossau-Iraty is an Appellation d'Origine Controlee aged sheep cheese (not "cheap cheese") made in the Southwest of France in the Basque and Bearn regions. Ossau-Iraty is an aged cheese generally sold after about 3 or 4 months in wheels of around 2 kilos (~5 lbs). It has a smooth, creamy ivory-colored pate with small holes; a natural rind varying from orangish tan to black, white and grey mottled; and a buttery, nutty, slightly tangy fruit flavor. From what we could gather from the farms we visited, they do not add a culture to the milk in the cheesemaking process, only rennet. All of the cheesemakers we asked used chymosin, not natural rennet. The milk comes from a local race of Basco-bearnaise sheep, either red-headed Manech (Manex) or black-headed Manech. The sheep are usually milked from November or December to about May or June and then taken to graze in the mountain pastures during the summer. The area where Ossau-Iraty is produced is demarcated by the Ossau valley in the Bearn region on the east, the Pyrenees on the south, the Iraty forest in the Basque region to the west, and as far as I can tell the northern boundary is somewhere around the rivers of Adour and Gave de Pau. The D918 highway which runs from St. Jean de Luz on the Atlantic coast to close to the city of Pau is the Route de Fromage for Ossau-Iraty, lined with small farmstead cheesemakers that sell their products to the public.

Route d'Fromage

I did my best to plan our cheese visits in advance through a cheese contact in Spain, contact information for a couple of Ossau-Iraty makers that I got from the web, and the tentative connection I had with an affineur in Bordeaux. We had hoped to visit a benedictine monestary that makes a fantastic cheese called Abbaye d'Bellocq but we discovered that only people on religious journeys (accompanied by men) were allowed to visit and that they had contracted out the manufacture of the cheese some time ago. So much for my visions of hanging out with cossack clad monks as they stirred the curd by hand in aged wooden vats, chanting all the while. Anyway, I've traveled enough in the past to realize that winging it is usually more successful than trying to make advance arrangements from afar with people in relatively isolated locations, and this proved to be the case. My contact in Spain was able to connect us with a fairly large (by Spanish standards, not by US) cheese factory that produced Idiazabal--a Basque sheep cheese made in the Northwest of Spain that is similar to Ossau-Iraty but usually smoked. Yvonne also had a Routard guidebook to the farmstead producers of agricultural products and chambres d'hotes (B&Bs) of France who opened their doors to the public. This was an excellent resource, even though we actually only visited a few farms listed in the guide, because it led us to the right areas and roads to find farms on our own.

Yvonne and I spent the better part of a week driving the small windy roads of Pays Basque in search of sheep cheese. We quickly learned a few lessons: #1 Nothing is open and no one is available between the hours of 12noon and about 3 pm. #2 A single map displaying all of the highways by name and all of the towns in the area does not exist, only an assortment of maps, each with partial information. Don't even bother trying to use a @#*&ing GPS system. #3 All roadsigns in Basque country have been systematically vandalized to obscure any French names of towns or places, leaving only the Basque names. #4 Basque people are extremely friendly and welcoming, with a rather wry sense of humor. #5 Almost all farms have really cool, friendly (yet filthy) dogs which you can't help but pet, invariably resulting in stinky dog hands. #6 A car full of ripe sheep cheese emits a rather pungent odor when left in the sun for any amount of time.

Through the previously mentioned resources available to us at the beginning of our trip we were able to locate and contact a couple of known Ossau-Iraty makers and attempt visits. I don't think we actually successfully visited any of these farms but we were able to discover many other cheesemakers in the process. The first farm that we tried to visit, not once but twice, was Ferme (that's french for "farm") Antxondoa in a town called Itxassou. We missed the hours of operation for their little farmstand on both occasions, and furthermore they were finished making cheese for the season, having dried off the sheep to coincide with the harvest of their black cherry orchard. They were quite helpful, though, in directing us toward a relative's farm in St. Martin d'Aberoue. This second farm, Ferme Agerria, turned out to be an excellent place to begin our cheese exploration as they have made a significant effort to be visiter-friendly and informative, even filming a video about the cheesemaking process with narration in Basque, French, Spanish and English (although they had only completed the Basque version at the time of our visit). In addition, we collected a couple new brochures and maps of the region listing other Ossau-Iraty makers.

Our visits to cheesemakers generally followed one of two patterns. In the first scenario we would arrive at a rather quiet little farm and wander around for a few minutes, making friends with the scroungy farm dogs, until being greeted by a little old lady in a housecoat or a little old man in a beret who would sell us a piece of cheese. For the other visits the actual cheesemaker was on hand, in a few cases in the middle of making cheese, and we were able to get a little tour of the facility and ask a barrange of questions. Well, I would ask questions in English, Yvonne would translate into French, they would answer her in French while I tried to pick out recognizable words and then she would translate the answers again for me. After 2 or 3 farms the process got a little more streamlined as Yvonne already knew the questions I wanted to ask and I had a better guess at what the answers would be. Although I was the source of most of the questions I found that with one exception the cheesemakers would all speak directly to Yvonne and ignore me.

[The exception was a relatively young single Basque guy who seemed rather keen to communicate with me, which led to a degree of girlish giggling and Yvonne's insistance on calling him my boyfriend. He ran the farm with his brother and we did briefly consider the possibility of marrying the two brothers and becoming Basque farmwives, but we got stuck on the issue of who would get the better looking one (with hopes that it was the unseen brother).]

Without fail we would conclude each farm visit by purchasing a whole wheel or a large chunk of cheese and some local cherry jam, dried prunes, cider or what have you. Visiting roughly ten farms meant that by the end of the week we had purchased about ten kilos (over 20 lbs) of sheep cheese, not including the four small wheels of Idiazabal cheese we had brought with us from Spain! Our almost daily lunch became a picnic of fresh bread, some type of salami or cured meat, an assortment of cheeses, cherry jam, prunes, pistachios and occassionally wine from our stash bought in La Rioja. Our digestive systems insisted upon the occasional break from this routine and we vowed to go on all fruit fasts when we returned to Grenoble. Our picnics did provide an opportunity to compare and contrast the surprisingly significant variations in flavor and texture among our cheese samples. In order to keep track of the origins of each piece we found ourselves resorting to an offhand system of nicknames for each of the farms and cheesemakers. "Old fly man", "cheeky Basque guy", "housecoat lady with bare-necked chickens", "rosy-cheeked fly lady", and "flirty bachelor guy" proved much more memorable labels than the actual farm names.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Viva La Revolucion!

So walking through some of the Basque towns such as Bilbao and San Sebastian I was interested to see all of the Euskadi Herrira grafitti, posters and paraphernalia. There were actually more than a few shops where you could purchase t-shirts and posters promoting Basque Unity. This was not surprising considering the centuries of struggle the Basque people have endured to retain their cultural identity and the strength of that sense of identity. What I did find slightly surprising was that all of these shops also prominently displayed Che Guevara t-shirts and bric-a-brac. I guess the Basque feel a political unity because Che fought for the common people and he was a revolutionary. Okay, I sorta see the connection.

But then I saw Che's image showing up in trendy stores in Barcelona, Paris, and the Cote d'Azur, each time slightly more disfigured by gaudy colors and embellishments such as rhinestones and catchy sayings. In Juan Les Pins, a ritzy resort town on the Cote d'Azur, there is a Che cafe complete with Andy Warholesque images stenciled along the bar, camouflage patio chairs, and a plethora of neon. It made me wonder how Che Guevara, who became famous as a young idealist overthrowing a corrupt debaucherous government in Cuba, has now become associated with glamour and bling.

Is this the sign of the ultimate demise of Che's socialist ideals, perpetrated by a devious capitalist market system maliciously bent on distorting and disfiguring cult political icons dear to idealistic activists and intellectuals? Or do people just think Che is the guy who made berets and camo look cool, and helped you get chicks if you put his picture up in your dorm room? Hey, what spunks up camo like a little bit of rhinestone and bling!

What would poor old Che think if he were alive now and saw the wealthy bourgeois tourists lying on the beach in the French Riviera with his likeness emblazoned on their asses in red and black sequins! Next time I am in the checkout line at the supermarket, I full expect to see Paris Hilton in a Che themed outfit staring back from the cover of some cheesy magazine. Ah well, I guess this is nothing compared to the supply of pro-Hitler paraphernalia that I saw available for purchase in the Russian market in Estonia.

Ooh la la!

French men have a certain style and class when it comes to hitting on women. A je ne sais quoi if you like. On two occasions when walking alone down a city street in France I have been startled to have an attractive young Frenchman say to me something that sounded like "...tres visant, madame." I know that that's not exactly what they said because I looked it up and that doesn't mean anything, but that is what it sounded like. Anyway, from what I could guess it meant something to the effect that they thought I was purdy. (If it really means "you smell funny" or "your fly's open" please just let me live with my delusion.)

Now, normally when an American man says something to this effect when passing in the street it usually comes out as slightly offensive or creepy. I wouldn't compare myself to Angelina Jolie or anything but I think it's fair to say I am a little more than averagely attractive, and I don't think I have ever had an American stranger give me a nice compliment like that, let alone two handsome strangers in the course of a few days. Maybe it was the use of madame that turned it into something incredibly charming and sweet or the fact that it was in French or that neither guy actually seemed pervy or creepy. Unfortunately, on both occasions when I was so addressed I was too startled and confused by the language to responed properly with at least a "Merci". But, to all single American men out there you might want to take a lesson from your French brethern and try giving polite compliments to strange women and it might get you somewhere. Although I have to say most of us will probably be too shocked to know how to respond.

Now don't get me started on Italian men and their "bella, bella" and the kissy noises. That's exactly not what I am talking about.

Biking in Tuscany

I had about ten days of traveling solo between Yvonne's departure for Hong Kong and my flight to Estonia for my brother's wedding. I spent a few days on the Cote D'Azur, thinking I would relax in class like a movie star. Suprised to discover that the beaches suck (think driveway gravel) and classy meant that the Che Guevara t-shirts for sale at the beachfront stores were decorated with rhinestones. I still had a nice few days relaxing in the sun and continuing to overeat (so much for my all fruit diet) before traveling to Florence, Italy.

When I graduated high school, my older sister and I spent a summer month on the requisite whirlwind tour of the highlights of western Europe. I had fond memories of Italy, Florence in particular, and decided to spend a few days there before catching my plane out of Milan. Somehow my memories did not include the huge hoards of tourists and tour groups in Florence! It only took me a couple of days to visit most of the noteworthy museums and churches in Florence and grow totally overwhelmed with the crowds of people. So, my last day in Florence I signed up for a day trip bike tour of the Chianti countryside.

Bicycle Tuscany was the cheapest, most convenient and best group I could find and I would definitely recommended this company to anyone else visiting Florence looking to get out into countryside for a break. They picked seven of us up in Florence in the morning and drove us out to the country house where they keep the bikes. We all got fitted out with gear and started a leisurely ride with a great view of the wineries and olive orchards. Our first stop was at a winery that was the former residence of Nicolas Machievelli and we got a tour of the cellars and a glass of wine. Then we stopped in one of the nearby villages for a great lunch of pasta and more wine. (At this point you may be getting the idea that this wasn't any Lance Armstrong endurance race and you would be right.)

After lunch we had just enough hills and incline to make us feel like we were actually getting some excercise and another couple of quick stops for soda and water. If it weren't for my allergy to olive tree pollen and my constantly watering eyes, it would have been a perfect day!

La Rioja

La Rioja is the best known wine region in Spain, located in the north of the country between Basque country and Catalonia. La Rioja is a very charming region to explore and I believe in ten years time it will be very heavily touristed and well-known. Right now it is still pretty quiet and you really need a basic understanding of Spanish to get around. There are a number wineries, or bodegas as they call them, that have recently built spectacular reception centers and buildings designed by famous architects. We didn't see any of these noteworthy places but there were a lot of new buildings and recent infrastructure improvements all over the area.

We started our exploration of La Rioja in Logrono, the biggest town in the region. (We stayed in a hotel run by a family of heroin addicts who, you might imagine, were a bit difficult to negotiate with when we decided not to stay there the second night and asked for our money back.) At the tourist office there we got a large stack of information about the wine and the bodegas of the area and a few different maps. We quickly discovered that most of the bodegas did not have set operating hours, at least not in May, and we needed to call ahead to make an appointment for winetasting. The region is composed of a number of small villages and the bodegas are spread out among a spider's web of small highways and roads, not all of which were on our maps or clearly labeled. So, finding somewhere to visit and taste wine was actually quite a bit of work and stretched my telephone Spanish skills to the max. After a couple of days touring the highways and byways of La Rioja, which was actually quite pleasant in itself, we managed to visit three bodegas.

All of the bodegas in La Rioja are quite small, family-run businesses. At each of the bodegas we visited we were greeted warmly and given a tour of the facilities, but little or no English was spoken. In the beginning I did my best to translate what I understood to Yvonne, but I quickly discovered that her knowledge of French and Italian allowed her to catch as much or more Spanish than I did and as often as not she would correct me.

The DOC wines of the La Rioja are primarily tempranillo grapes and they can be joven, Crianza (aged three years, one in oak), Reserva (specially selected grapes, aged three years, one in oak), and Gran Reserva (specially selected grapes, aged two years in oak and three in the bottle). The first bodega we visited, Solabal, in Abalos, made a young wine that was slightly carbonated through the winemaking process. They claimed that this style was unique to their local area. Yvonne and I both really liked it and bought a couple of bottles--at a price of 2 Euro!

The other two wineries we visited were Bodegas Heredad Banos Bezares in Brinas, and La Piscina. We bought a number of bottles of wine at each bodega which we were then forced to drink for the remainder of our roadtrip.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Yvonne, my partner in crime (& overconsumption)

Yvonne and I met at the California Culinary Academy about four years ago. I recognized immediately that she was someone I wanted to get to know and actually had an appreciation and knowledge of good food and culture. (Suprisingly, that it is actually rare at CCA--they advertise on daytime television and I think a lot of applicants just flip a coin to decide between cooking school and learning to drive a tractor-trailer or being a dental hygenist.) With a few other friends, we made a conscious effort to visit some of the finer dining establishments in San Francisco during our year at school. Yvonne also always knew where the cool bars, parties, artshows, etc. were after being involved in the SF art scene for a few years. I was quite distressed when in 2004 she up and moved to Hong Kong, where her parents live, to see if it was somewhere she could call home. When we met up in France, she had just spent the past six months in Italy working in kitchens. She is still trying to find that place to call home, which is a struggle I understand and sympathize with, but at least I am pretty sure what continent I want to live on.

On my arrival in Grenoble, France I was introduced to a few members of Yvonne's large extended family. Yvonne's paternal grandmother moved to France about 30 years ago and brought all of her children (I think there are seven brothers and sisters) with her. With the exception of Yvonne's dad, they all live in France, and a few of the aunts even live down the street from Grandma. Yvonne's dad has a lovely house in Grenoble which he visits a few times a year when he goes on his annual wine purchasing trips to France. We used this house as homebase for our adventure, beginning and ending the roadtrip there. The day I landed in Lyon, I was met at the airport by Yvonne and her cousin Benjamin and we went to one of the aunt's houses for lunch. We ate lunch with her grandma, cousin, aunt, uncle and their two exchange students. It was a very unique multi-cultural experience. The conversation took place in French, English and Cantonese with a few people at the table switching back and forth between the different languages to involve different people in the conversation. Yvonne's aunt kept forgetting what language to speak to what person, and Benjamin and Yvonne kept throwing in Italian to add to the confusion. Our lunch consisted of kongee (Chinese rice porridge with dried scallops in it), a salad of treviso chicory, apples, corn and Dijon dressing, then pork with Chinese five spice and rice, and finished with Comte cheese, all accompanied with Rhone wine and rustic French bread.

Yvonne's grandma is 89 years old and going strong. Although she only speaks Cantonese I got some translations of some of her comments and she is pretty funny. She went on at some length about how Yvonne's clunky boots were going to break all of the floor tile at her father' house. When we returned from our roadtrip, Yvonne went to Grandma's house for dinner with the aunties and did not come home until 5 am. This was because they played mah jong and Grandma would not let anyone quit until she started winning, even if it meant staying up all night. I hope I can pull an all night gambling spree when I'm 89!

I was quite fortunate that Yvonne was available and willing to join me on my adventure. She proved an asset with her numerous skills and talents: French language skills; excellent sense of direction (most of the time); appreciation and knowledge of fine wines; ability to challenge all of my broad, baseless statements; good choice in driving music; love of ham and cheese; willingness to eat any of the "challenging" food items I ordered by mistake (like baby lamb knuckles); and most importantly sense of humor. As with any time you spend 24 hours a day with for 30 days straight with the same person we did occasionally become aware of each other's less attractive features, but I will refrain from mentioning any of those here as I should hope Yvonne has already conveniently forgotten all of my annoying habits.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

La Boqueria

La Boqueria is the large permanent farmer's market in Barcelona, Spain. You can find dozens of produce vendors, butchers, and seafood stalls, plus various other specialty food booths. Yvonne and I had managed to rent for the week a small apartment with a kitchen in the Barceloneta neighborhood and were determined to cook some of our meals to offset the expense of our rent. We found an amazing array of processed and cured meat products, blood sausages, chorizos, offal and fresh meat in all shapes and sizes. You would be hard pressed to find a meat market anywhere in the United States with such an amazing selection on-hand.

One of my first encounters with a cheesemonger on our trip, I very excited to see that the few Catalon cheeses I was familiar with and promptly bought a big slice of Nevat goat cheese. It is a luxuriously rich, soft-ripened goat cheese that comes in the basic shape and size of a large round peasant loaf of bread.

There was also a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, both local and from around the world. I was hoping for a more seasonal, regional produce selection. The strawberries and other berries were incredibly fragrant and delicious. Most of the greens were not chilled in any way and looked the worse for wear, as did most of the asparagus we saw in Spain and France. We did find a vendor with some lovely head lettuce and fresh herbs, morel mushrooms and fava beans. We ended up making a yummy risotto with the morels, favas, asparagus and some goat cheese.

The day we visited La Boqueria the fish stalls were all closed, but there were a number of seafood restaurant stalls open. We ate lunch at one particularly busy stand that specialized in huge platters of prawns, shellfish and molluscs. All of the stools around the counter were full when we arrived and there was a formless crowd of people standing around evidently waiting to eat. After standing in the crowd for about ten minutes we finally figured out that there was actually a method to the madness and that if you alerted the guy at the register that you were waiting he would assign you stools to wait behind. While a little disconcerting to have people standing behind you while you eat waiting for you to hurry up and go, the system actually seemed to work pretty well for them. I'd like to say that we splurged and sampled some the seafood platters but instead we went with the fixed menu lunch and had relatively unexciting fish plates.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Good Grub

So, I had this great plan to keep a journal during this trip and write down everything I ate and what the names were for things and other meticulous details. I would also take fabulous photos, and who knows, maybe publish this all in Gourmet. Okay, so at some level I knew it wasn't going to happen. My short-term memory seems to disappearing as I age (I'm only 30--I know--what'll I be like at 60?), and I can barely keep track of the foreign names long enough to order from the menu, let alone write about them with any confidence. Let's face it, one month of touring around a region hardly qualifies you as any kind of expert, even if you do pay careful attention to your environment and your experiences. Well, then there is the part about keeping a detailed journal. Every day when there was downtime appropriate for reflection and writing that was the last thing I wanted to do. Instead I chose to veg out, read a book or watch old 80's TV re-dubbed in foreign languages (for some reason The Love Boat is very popular in France). There were a couple of times late at night, when suffering from insomnia brought on by too much espresso, I thought out detailed passages to jot down in my journal. I could never quite remember my train of thought the next day, though.

So, I've already disqualified myself from writing any kind of informed, detailed culinary treatise on Southern France and Northern Spain. However, I did eat some really good food, some of which I actually remember.

A few noteworthy dishes:
#beautiful ripe strawberries with parsley ice cream (this was a dessert--weird but good)

#steak tartare with greens and crispy potatoes (must have been cooked in duck fat--yum!)

#white asparagus (nicely blanched, not mushy like we found in most Spanish restaurants) with green garlic, olive oil and balsamic

#a platter of homemade charcuterie: country pork pate, head cheese, and duck pate

#prunes in red wine with tart cassis sorbet

#salami made from donkey (tasted just like pork)

#a pot of rich, thick and luxurious papa al pomodoro (tomato-bread soup)

#a plate piled high with lovely, squeaky fresh haricot verts with hazelnut oil dressing

#"Catalan dessert" which was a custard, with caramel, nougat, chocolate and all kinds of goodness on the plate

#risotto with asparagus, fava beans, and goat cheese

#caille, curdled sheep milk with vanilla, cinnamon and honey with a yogurty consistency that came in a precious little ceramic crock

#a cheese buffet--it was like a salad bar but with dozens of amazing, perfectly ripe french cheeses (and no sneezeguard)

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Ferme Agerria

This section represents the details I gathered on each of the individual farms we visited and their cheese and cheesemaking process. Other than me, there are probably few people who are actually interested in what temperature the cheese curd was cooked to or for how long the wheels were pressed, but this section is for them (and me). I'll try to include lots of photos and amusing anecdotes to keep it interesting, though.

Bernadette & Jean-Claude Pochelu
St. Martin d'Aberoue
06 32 62 10 64

Ferme Agerria was our first visit and they provided us with a significant amount of information about the cheesemaking process and their farm. As they were our first stop and we bought a whole wheel of cheese from them, we never came up with any whimsical nickname for them. I would have to say that, to me, the Agerria cheese most resembled the Ossau-Iraty I have had before (Abbaye d'Bellocq and Panache d'Aramits) and it's one of my favorites. It is AOC certified.

The Make
At Agerria they make cheese every other day, using the milk from four milkings. The batches range from about 300 to 600 litres, depending on the stage of the season. On the cheesemaking day, the morning milk is added to the previous three milkings at 22 C and they are all raised to 30 C. At this point they add the rennet and wait about 45 minutes. The curds are heated to 40 C. When the curd has formed it is cut. The set curd is then cut into blocks and put into the cheese molds lined with nylon film. The cheese is then pressed at 2.5 bars for 30 minutes, turned and then pressed at 3 bars until mid-afternoon. The cheese is then rested overnight. The next day it is brined for 20 hours. The two kilo cheese wheels are aged at 12 C, 75% humidity on beech wood, brushed and turned daily. After 20 days the cheese is aged at 11 C, 85%, brushed and turned weekly. The cheese is then sold at three months of aging.

The Farm
Ferme Agerria is 25 hectacres (about 50 acres) in size, with 3/4 in pasture and hay. They have 300 red-headed Manex sheep, and do use some artificial insemination. They lamb from November to February and ween the lambs at 10-11 kg. Other than pasture, the sheep are fed cereal and chopped hay. The whey from the cheesemaking process is fed to pigs. The cheese to milk ratio in December is 1 kg/6 L and by July it is 1 kg/4.5 L. The "white cheese" (before being aged) yield per year is 4.5 tonnes but they plan to grow to 6 tonnes in the coming year.

The Cheese
rind: sticky orange rind
pate: many small holes
flavor: buttery, slightly tart
mouth feel: dry, faintly chalky


Jesus Manuel Moreno
Araia, Espana

This was the only cheese factory we visited in Spain. They primarily make Idiazabal cheese, smoked and plain. This factory was in the Northwest of Spain about an hour from San Sebastian, and I was introduced to them through a friend of a friend who works in cheese in Spain. Jesus and an assistant gave us a very thorough tour of their facility in a mix of Spanish, French and English. They are not a farmstead producer, but receive their milk from about 300 different small producers. Samples from all of the producers are regularly sent out to labs and they measure the TA (titratable acidity) and protein levels in-house.

The cheese is made in 8,000 L capacity tanks (although not usually full) with raw sheeps milk. The culture is added and left for two hours at 32 C. They use a natural rennet and cut the curd into about 1 inch cubes for 20 minutes. The cheese curd is drained out of the tank down a pipe to a machine that fills the molds. The whey that drains off is sold as animal feed. The full cheese molds are pressed for 2 hours. The cheese is then dipped in brine and soaked for 6 to 7 hours in a constant stream. The cheeses are dipped in a wax-like sealant before aging. The cheese is aged at 9 C for 1-2 months. At about 4 months old they are smoked with natural woodsmoke.

Queserias Araia produces about 2-3 million kgs of cheese per year with about 20 employees. They are hoping to upgrade all of their equipment in the near future to become the largest cheesemaker in Spain. While the scale they are working at is much larger than the farmstead producers that we visited, by comparison to cheese factories in the U.S. they are still quite small.

Flirty Bachelor Guy

Alain & Andre Etchepare
St. Etienne de Baigorri
05 59 37 44 55

As described previously, our host at this farm was a young bachelor who ran the farm with his brother and he was quite pleased to have two young women to talk to. This was about the sixth farm we saw that day, and I think we had also visited a winery, so we were a bit punchy at this point. Their cheesemaking process seemed to follow the same general pattern as the other cheesemakers we had visited. Their cheese is AOC Ossau-Iraty.

The Make
They make cheese every other day in batches of about 400L of milk. They add the rennet (chymosin) and wait 45 minutes before cutting the curd. The cheese is pressed 4 to 5 hours per wheel of cheese. The cheese is brined for 10 hours/kg. They brush the wheels with butter if they crack during the aging process.

The Farm
They have about 200 Manex sheep, which produce 2L of milk per day. The sheep are milked from December to June and taken to the mountain pastures for the summer. They milk 12 sheep at a time in their parlor.

The Cheese
rind: grey-brown rind, white mold
pate: small holes
flavor: buttery, nutty, sweet
mouth-feel: chalky, dry texture

Housecoat Lady with Bare-Necked Chickens

Jeanine & Daniel Mocho
St. Etienne de Baigorri
05 59 37 44 46

This was another farm where we were not able to view the facilities. We bought a whole wheel of cheese and some black cherry jam from an older women at the farmhouse. Besides the yard of chickens which were all missing the feathers from their neck (a bare-necked breed? I don't know) the other notable aspect of our visit was the departure. Yvonne has little experience driving a manual transmission and we were parked on a sloping gravel driveway. As you might imagine, the clouds of dust and burning emergency brake drew the old women outside in concern and we eventually made our way with a considerable degree of embarassment. The cheese from this farm was AOC Ossau-Iraty.

The Cheese
rind: light brown rind with white mold and black speckles
pate: many small holes
flavor: mildly nutty
mouth feel: smooth

Cheeky Basque Guy

05 59 37 78 21

I think the nickname kind of speaks for itself, but yes, the cheesemaker was a Basque guy with a pretty dry sense of humor. We got the impression that he thought we were kind of goofy and was chuckling to himself about us. At one point he looks at me and then says to Yvonne, in French, something to the effect of, "She doesn't speak French does she? I can see it in the blank stare". Despite the attitude, he was happy to show us around his farm and answer all of our questions. He had the cleanest and best run facilities that we saw on our tour, and his AOC Ossau-Iraty was excellent.

The Make
At this point we had seen a few farms and gotten detailed information about their make process, so I took a bit less detailed notes and more photos. They make cheese from four milkings at a time, every other day, in batches of about 300 L. They use chymosin for a coagulant, not natural rennet. The wheels are brined 10-12 hours/kilo.

The Farm
They have 200 black-headed Manex milkers. They milk 12 ewes at a time in their milking parlor. The sheep are milked from December to July and moved to mountain pastures for the summer.

The Cheese
rind: medium sized wheel, grey-brown rind with white mold
pate: small holes
flavor: butter, nutty, sweet
mouth feel: chalky, dry texture

Old Man Fly Cheese

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This was one of the farms we visited where the cheesemaker was not around and we were greeted by a little old Basque man in a beret. As you might guess there were a lot of flies around, which didn't seem to bother the old man (even when they landed on his face). He said he worked for the cheesemaker and sold us a wedge of their cheese, which I believe was not AOC labeled, and a bottle of Basque cider. This cheese was actually one of my favorites for flavor.

The Cheese
rind: short wheel with blackly speckled rind
pate: few small holes, smooth pate, fine crystals
flavor: sweet, buttery, sour
mouth feel: dry texture, slightly chalky

Pink-Cheeked Fly Lady

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This was the only farm we visited that was in the Bearn region. She made cheeses with both cow's milk (vache), sheep's milk (brebis) and a combination of the two (melange). While similar in style to the other Basque cheeses we sampled, her sheep milk cheese was not an AOC Ossau-Iraty. The cheesemaker was in the middle of making a batch of brebis cheese when we arrived and was very enthusiastic about showing us her facilities and process. She was very hearty and charming and we liked her a lot. There was a bit of a fly problem--hence the nickname--and this farm seemed a little bit more seat-of-the-pants than some of the others.

The Make
Brebis cheese is made one day, vache cheese the next and when there is not enough milk for a whole batch of either, she makes a melange. The milk is heated in the cheese vat with the external gas burner. The curd is cut rather small and agitated 30 to 45 minutes. The cheese is pressed using large individual metal weights. The cheese is rubbed with salt on the outside of the wheel, not brined. During the two to six month affinage they control the humidity of the wheels by rubbing them with salt, rather than changing the humidity of the aging room.

The Farm
Ferme Cazaux has 250 Basco-Bearnaise sheep, as well as Alpine breed cows. They are hay fed. In the summer they move the sheep to the mountain pastures and milk them by hand. The cheese produced there is sold directly to hikers. There are three family members who work on the farm full-time and they produce 4 tonnes of cheese per year. Their milk/cheese yield for cow's milk is 10 L/1 kg and for sheep milk 6 L/1 kg.

The Cheese
rind: tan-orange rind with little grey and brown flecks
pate: smooth, soft
flavor: winey fruitiness
mouth feel: elastic texture

rind: tan-orange rind with white and grey
pate: many small holes, soft
flavor: pronounced wine flavor, very fruity
mouth feel: soft and very elastic

Border Collie Farm

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This farm was the furthest north in our tour, quite near Bordeaux. I don't believe they could actually call their cheese Ossau-Iraty, but they made it in that fashion. They had about 5 or 6 gorgeous border collies who greeted us on our arrival. The wife was busy making the cheese and the husband gave of tastes and answered our questions as best as he could. We got the impression, though, that the wife was the real cheese expert. This was the last farm we visited so we used the opportunity to try to clarify some of the information we had gotten previously and were unsure about.

The Make
They make cheese every day, with at most 4 milkings. The milk is raised to 32 C and the rennet (chymosin) is added. They cut the curd after 1 1/2 hour and raise the temperature to 38 C. They rub the cheese wheels with salt rather than brining them.

The Farm
They have 250 Black-headed Manex that they milk from October to June. Because they are further north (and out of the Pyrenees) they have a bit warmer weather which affects their milking cycle. They sell their cheese on-farm and locally.

The Cheese
rind: orange-tan rind with white flecks, tall wheel
pate: soft, many small holes
flavor: fruity but mild, slightly sour
mouth-feel: chalky

Monday, July 03, 2006

Jean D'Alos

Jean D'Alos is the Bordeaux affineur from whom Cowgirl Creamery sources all of its French cheeses. Working in the Cowgirl shops in San Francisco there was always a hint of awed reverence for Jean D'Alos and his cheeses, not without warrant. Jean D'Alos is of the respected profession of affineur, visiting cheesemakers around the countryside, hand-selecting cheeses to take back to his caves in Bordeaux for aging and eventual sale. I was hoping that my tentative link to Jean D'Alos through Cowgirl would help me to locate Ossau-Iraty makers and make some connections. As it worked out we visited Bordeaux (and the Jean D'Alos shop) at the end of our cheese tour, and we had been quite successful in locating cheesemakers without any assistance. However, it was still a valuable experience to visit the shop and see the amazing variety of perfectly ripened cheeses, most of which are unavailable in the United States. I was also able to speak briefly with Priscilla, who has worked with Jean D'Alos for about twenty years and is a virtual encyclopedia of cheese knowledge. She made me appreciate how little I actually know--I had a hard time knowing what questions to ask her and was surprised by the depth of knowledge represented in her responses. The most interesting information I learned from her was that there is a definite distinction between the Basque region and the Bearn region in the production Ossau-Iraty cheese:

curd cooked at 30-32 C
the cheese curd is poked to help release whey
the pate has small holes
the cheeses are rubbed with salt, not brined
example--Panache d'Aramits

cured cooked at higher temp, 34 C
cheese pressed smoother and firmer, with a pate more similar to Comte
cheese brined
example--Abbaye d'Bellocq

Looking back at my notes for the various cheesemakers we had visited I found it hard to separate them into these two distinct categories. I actually was suprised at the variation in the cheese between each producer considering the similarities in their cheesemaking processes, and I found it difficult to make any definitive conclusions about differences in the production and the final product. This new information just made me appreciate that we had only seen a small sample of the numerous farmstead producers of Ossau-Iraty.

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