It came to me last night: I am no longer a cheese newbie. Like a once young cheese in a cave, I have emerged- transformed. I am now a Turophile-a lover of cheese. It’s impossible for me to conceive of a life without cheese. Luckily, there are literally thousands of cheeses just waiting to build a special relationship with each of us. Be open to cheese, good things will happen.
Speaking of being open to cheese, I was searching for a young pecorino to sample, as promised. I absolutely adore Pecorino D’Oro- an extremely aged pecorino, but I knew that a younger version was out there also warranting a review. My cheese monger talked me into trying today’s cheese instead. It’s France’s version of pecorino: Ossau-Iraty. “It’s really good,” he said earnestly, and what could I say to that except, “yes please.” You see, I am learning from cheese. When cheese opens a door-walk through. Be brave.
Ossau-Iraty is an ancient raw milk sheep’s cheese from the valley of Ossau, in Bearn and the forests of Iraty in Basque country. According to the Basque, the recipe has remained unchanged for 4000 years. Do you recall the origin legend of Roquefort? The young shepherd-distracted-left his sheep milk cheese and bread in a cave, then came back later to discover it had transformed. In all likelihood, that cheese he left behind was an Ossau-Iraty. This cheese doesn’t just have an origin legend-it has an origin myth. Ossau-Iraty was allegedly invented by Aristee himself, the shepherd son of the God, Apollo.
Here’s where it gets a little tricky. The name Ossau-Iraty is actually new, dating from 1980 and the AOC designation. Before this it was called by different names, often depending on which area the cheese was made in. It’s a bit of a catch-all for raw milk locally made sheep cheese-and thus there are still regional varieties and differences, despite the AOC rules.
The production of sheep’s milk cheese has played a hugely significant role in this area for millennium. Archaeological evidence of cheese making in this region stretches back to Neolithic times. As far back as the 14th century, sheep cheese was a recognized exchange commodity and was often used in the market place to barter and set prices. The production of Ossau-Iraty remains virtually unchanged. The cheese is still made using old-timey methods. The sheep are grazed in the mountains in the summer, and the cheese is made on site from the milk of Manech ewes.
If you are lucky, and I got lucky today-you can find a version still produced in mountain huts (Ossau-Iraty Fermier.)The fresh curd is kneaded, moulded and pressed by hand and then salted with coarse salt. It is then aged at least 90 days in a damp place-preferably a cave. The local nickname for Ossau-Iraty is “farmer’s dessert.” It was traditionally lunch for the shepherd and dessert for the farmer-which just lends further credence to my suspicion that this was the cheese that turned into Roquefort.
My slice of Ossau-Iraty Fermier has been keeping me company as I write. It’s a large and firm looking cheese with a creamy interior and a few small eyes. The rind is a natural brown, and is apparently edible and part of the eating experience. The smell is extremely mild. I have to put my nose right up to it to catch anything, and that’s just sweet and subtle, no sheep essence of note.
Hmmmm, it is sweet and mild, a little bland-the sheep is there, but it’s understated. It’s quite creamy and chilled out. It’s not overly salty, it’s actually nicely balanced. It reminds me of Idiazabal, the naturally smoked Spanish sheep’s cheese. For some reason it also reminds me of a cheese version of soya sauce-that sweet, salty, savoury balance and….oh, yuck! I just got a taste of the rind which I was assured was edible and it was just heinous! It was bad. Really, really bad. Bad mould- like spit it out now or you are going to get sick bad. I have just had to go rinse out my mouth with Listerine and that’s a first. No, not enough, back after a tooth brushing and now mint gum. I can still taste it. Stay away from the rind! Warning!
OK, Ossau-Iraty, I was all into being open-minded about you opening new doors for me, you temptress. I was ready to add you to my list of cheeses. However, that rind thing just freaked me out. I’m sure it was just a bad bit of rind and not typical, but I’m going to have PTSD from eating you. It’s over between us, Ossau-Iraty. You are definitely not my slice of cheese.