When we think of the noble beasts who give us cheese, what kind of images come to mind? Cows? Of course. Goats? Maybe, but how many of us think of sheep? Poor, maligned sheep are really the progenitors of cheese. That ancient mythical shepherd who forgot a skein of milk in a cave that became the world’s first cheese… that would have been sheep milk. Yes, the first cheese was a sheep’s cheese. Shepherds herded sheep, (and sometimes goats) but really, cows are very new on the scene, yet they have all the glory. That’s kind of sad for a sheep cheese lover like me. One almost has to go back to the “Old Country” to find a decent sheep cheese, and there’s nothing more “old country” than Basque.
Today’s cheese, Etorki, is a Basque cheese, named in homage for the great history of sheep cheese making in this region. In fact, the word “etorki” is a Basque word meaning “origin.” Basque sheep farmers have been making a cheese kind of like this, for close to 4000 years. Alas, or perhaps, luckily, my cheese is not 4000 years old. Etorki was first created in the 1970′s (like me) and is produced by the Fromagerie des Chaumes at Mauléon, in southwestern France. Etorki is a pasteurized cheese, made in the style of ancient Pyrenees cheese, but this time with a few modern conveniences-such as pasteurization and vacuum packing- thrown in for good measure.
Local, black or red-faced Manech ewes provide all of the milk for Etorki cheese. In total, flocks of 620 local shepherds and dairy farmers pool their milk to make this cheese. It takes a total of six gallons of milk to produce just one wheel of Etorki, which is an awful lot of milk when one considers the size of a sheep’s udder. It’s udderly impressive! Etorki is made in a limited run- only from late December to mid July. As is traditional in this region, Etorki curds are pressed but not cooked. After they are unmolded, the cheese is brined for 2 hours before being dried and having salt rubbed on the rind. This rind salt-rubbing happens several times during the first week, then the cheese is vacuum-sealed before going into affinage for three to six months.
My Etorki has a rusty, bumpy natural rind because of the molds formed during pressing. The rind is orange with white speckles and according to sources-inedible-so I shall stay away. The interior paste is creamy and has small eyes. The smell is faint, yet inviting. It’s mysterious and delicious smelling, but subtle and beckoning. I can wait no longer…
Oh, my jaw just squelched! Do you know that funny twinge you get sometimes with cheese? That’s actually your salivary glands going a little crazy. It’s a creamy, voluptuous, caramel-tasting cheese. It’s much softer than I anticipated, more like a very young gouda. It melts in the mouth and yields to the teeth. There’s something almost floral in the taste. It’s very subtle, yet completely compelling. Actually, I love this cheese, the texture is perfect and the taste mysterious and well-balanced. I was worried about all that salt-brining and rubbing, but stay away from the rind and it’s not an issue.