I do fret about these little cheese essays of mine. My aim is to be entirely truthful in my feelings about a cheese, regardless of how romantically attached I am to it. I don’t like all the cheese I have tasted here. In fact, I don’t like about half the cheese I have tasted. I think there have only been two thus far I have down-right despised, but there have been quite a few “passes.” This becomes problematic, as every single cheese on the market has thousands of supporters-otherwise, it wouldn’t still be a viable cheese. Thus, with every cheese I pan I am likely insulting not only the maker and distributor, but all those (weird) people who love the cheese, and I apologize. The thing is, no one will love everything. This is one person’s impression only, and one person raised on crappy cheese-let me add!
This cheese quandary of mine especially comes into play with an ancient and well-loved cheese like today’s cheese from Spain-Idiazabal. Idiazabal is a sheep cheese made from raw milk and is produced in Basque country. This cheese is all tied up with the identity of the folks who have been making and eating it for millennium, pan Idiazabal and you better watch your …Basque.
Well, hopefully I won’t be doing any panning, but I want you to understand the pressure. A new cheese can be easily dismissed, it’s a bigger deal with a cheese like this. But cheese is more than taste for me- I want to connect with the story of the cheese, and I actually love the history of Idiazabal. Traditionally, Basque shepherds made cheese in the summer months and brought them down from the mountains in the fall months to eat and trade. These young cheeses were stored in the roof of their shepherd’s huts over the summer where they absorbed all the smoke from their fires-making Idiazabal one of the first naturally smoked cheeses.
Today Idiazabal comes in both smoked and non-smoked, and no shepherd huts are involved (and that’s just sad to me.) When my family were hippies, we used to dry sliced apples in the rafters of our house too-they also smelled and tasted of smoke after a while-so I am feeling rather attached to this cheese already. If smoked, Idiazabel these days is cold smoked and in special rooms created for this purpose over a couple of days using beech wood or hawthorne only. Smoking is optional with Idiazabal.
Idiazabal is named for the village of Idiazabal, located in the Goierri valley. It has DOP designation which states it must be made from the raw milk of Latxa or Carranza sheep only. The cheese is handmade usually on the farm, and each farm’s cheese tastes a little different. Families are fiercely protective and staunch supporters of THEIR Idiazabal recipe. Farmer’s typically take great care with tending their sheep flock, and often give the sheep the credit for the quality of the cheese, which is nice. Idiazabal is an aged cheese, but is sold and eaten at different points, from semi-cured to cured. It’s cured for a minimum of 8 months before sale.
Lucky for me, my little slice of Idiazabal is the smoked version-not that I am a proponent of smoking, but when it’s part of the cheese tradition, I’m ok with it. It’s a firm and somewhat dry and dense looking cheese with a dark yellow rind. The paste is yellow, but gets darker as you get closer to the rind-I suspect because of the smoke. There are tiny little holes throughout the cheese, not proper eyes, just a spackle. The cheese smells very mild and just a tiny bit sheepy, I can’t detect any smoke-hawthorn, beech or anything else for that matter.
Interesting. This cheese changes taste as you chew it. Initially it’s a sweet and salty little sheep thing, but then the smoke hits you-not in an overly heinous way, it’s quite subtle. The sheep taste is pretty subtle too-it’s not in your face like goat. It’s actually fantastic tasting-but the texture is really weird to me-it’s almost granular and takes a while to break down in your mouth. There’s no melting happening, you need to chew this one. Another bite closer to the rind, and the smoke taste is much more pronounced. It’s smokey, yet it’s sweet, like kissing a really cute chick who’s just snuck a cigarette. Kind of yummy and kind of wrong, but I like it nonetheless. Good job Basque farmers!