Cheese 125 Pont L’Eveque

About once every two months, I like to go cross-border shopping into Bellingham, Washington. It’s only 1.5 hours from Vancouver, and-unlike Vancouver-it has a Trader Joe’s store- full of Canadians. The parking lot is awash with BC plates, it’s almost laughable.

Trader Joe’s features a new “Spotlight” cheese every month. This cheese is sold as a killer special deal,  and their cheese, in general, is about half the price of the same cheese in Canada. You can imagine what I like to stock up on (along with the lacy chocolate cookies and coconut ribbons-I digress.)

Yesterday I picked up April’s special, Pont L’Eveque. Now, it is May, not April, so I’m really hoping that this cheese is still good. It’s a little risky buying a famous and fragile cheese like this. It’s really a cheese that should be cherished and purchased lovingly from a cheese monger who slices off a morsel, wraps it in cheese paper and passes it to you-but here it is bought in bulk.  Image

Pont L’Eveque is a French cheese made of (in this case) pasteurized cow’s milk. It carries the DOP label (appelation d’origine protegee) so that means it’s the real thing. I confess to being a little confused over whether or not this cheese is normally pasteurized-web sources seem to contradict themselves. However, this Trader Joe’s version is pasteurized, that may have been done to allow sale into the USA-not sure.

It’s a washed rind cheese and one of the very oldest of the French cheeses-and that’s saying something. A famous French poem from the 13th century makes reference to this cheese, so people have been eating and loving this one for a long time.

ImageSome believe it is named after the Norman Abbey monks who first introduced it in the 12th century. Pont l’Eveque was originally called Angelot cheese. It’s also called Moyaux cheese. Why it needs three names is unclear, but you can just interchange them at a dinner party and people will think you are amazing!

Pont L’Eveque looks like a square brie or camembert, except it is a washed rind cheese, so it’s a little yellow and sticky on the outside-not that velvety white. There are small lines running through the rind. The inside is soft and gooey-I have been letting it warm up, unwrapped on my counter for about an hour (please do let your cheese warm up, it’s so much happier if you do!) It’s slightly bulgy and creamy looking on the inside, there are several small eyes throughout the paste.

Now, the smell. I have read a number of accounts describing how stinky this cheese is. People refer to all sorts of bodily odours in comparison to this cheese, and that’s just silly. Anyone who thinks this cheese smells obviously hasn’t eaten a lot of cheese. Yes, it is a washed rind cheese, which means that there are a lot of happy bacteria on the rind (not just inside) so it is a little funky, but don’t be scared off by reports of it’s reek. They are misleading. It’s a nice, pungent little smelling cheese.

ImageHere goes:

Mmmm. Oh, I like it! It tastes like asparagus to me. Isn’t that weird? It’s pretty mild, with that expected hit of ammonia from any washed rind, but it mixes nicely with the creamy, smooth interior. There’s a great balance of salt, and as it’s a rather small cheese there’s a lot of rind to body ratio-so that stronger rind mixes with the creamy interior and gives a great flavour profile. OK, I’m going to say it-it does taste a tiny bit like pee or maybe belly button (these are both guesses, for the record, I actually don’t know what either of those taste like) but there is something a little carnal about this cheese. It has a nice, “I’m alive and you are eating me” sort of taste, but I like that! I don’t want to eat some dead, wimpy sort of cheese.  I might like it even more with a little slice of pear or apple, it is described as a dessert cheese, and I get that.

Funky, gnarly, yummy, cheap.

Go and get some!

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Cheese 114-Garrotxa


 

Cheese 114-Garrotxa

After months of obsessing over cheese, researching cheese, living cheese, it’s such a pleasure to discover a cheese that is unlike any I have seen before. It still shocks me, really-how much we humans can do with a little bit of milk, time and ingenuity. I stumbled across today’s cheese, Garrotxa the other day while browsing my local cheese specialty store’s wonderful box of cheese ends for sale.  I highly recommend checking out these boxes of bits and ends.  It’s a perfect way to try a number of cheeses without making a huge commitment to something gnarly.  Most cheese stores have them, just ask.

This wedge of Garrotxa jumped out at me chiefly due to its ugliness.  Really, this is one vile looking cheese.  It’s almost black on the outside, and this black, bloomy rind had crept all the way around the cut side, enveloping this cheese in a zombie-like black mould rind thing.  I guess it’s no great surprise that it was in the left-over bin.  Of course, I do love an underdog, especially a cheese underdog, so I ignored all the other flashy cheeses and brought this little ugly duckling home with me. Also, I recalled that  the Mythbusters episode entitled Greased Lightning determined that Garrotxa is an ideal cheese for use as a cannonball, due to its size and elasticity.  I  mean, really, an ugly cheese that doubles as a cannonball. How can I resist?

It turns out that Garrotxa is a Spanish cheese made from unpasteurized goat’s milk.  That means pregnant ladies, stay away!  It also has a really unique and kind of creepy weird mold rind thing going on, so really, this one is not for folks with a compromised immune system. Interestingly, some sources on the net claim that this is a new cheese, hitting the market in 1981 and making a real name for itself and gaining popularity.  So much popularity that  there is a big movement to make this an AOC cheese, as imposters-yes-cheese impostors are cropping up claiming the name but not playing the game.  Interestingly, a few sources actually refer to Garrotxa as an AOC cheese already (this means protected name, protected region) while other state that it is not.The Catalan Association of Artisan Cheese Producers have made application for a protected designation of origin, but I don’t think they have it yet, some people may just be jumping the cheese gun here.

I digress, as I mentioned some folks believe that this is a new cheese born in the 1980’s, but a more interesting tale is that it is an ancient cheese, only brought back to life (see, I knew it was a zombie) in the 1980’s. It is actually a very old traditional type of cheese in the region, but the recipe was basically forgotten for while.  Following the Spanish civil war and the second world war, Spain was left in abject poverty. The government implemented a policy which essentially rendered small-scale farming illegal (weird). This basically  forced artisan cheese making underground.  Some cheese survived, others didn’t.  So when Garrotxa reappeared int he 1980’s and was branded a “new cheese” real turophiles knew it wasn’t.

Perhaps the coolest thing about Garrotxa besides the fact that it is actually a zombie brought back from the dead  (and also the most frightening to me personally) is the unusual blue-grey and almost suede-like fungus on the outside known as a pell florida. Garrotxa is also known as ‘formatge pell florida’, which means ‘flowery skin cheese.” In this case, the word flowery is clearly euphemistic.  My little heinous wedge of Garrotxa really is an ugly duckling.  Before I cut away the black mould that crept over the cut sides it really didn’t resemble anything that one should eat.  After cutting it away a creamy yellow cheese emerged in sharp contrast to the black velvet rind.  Some sources claim the rind is edible, others say stay away.  I’m going with the later today!  This cheese actually smells amazing.  As I have been writing this morning and the cheese has been waiting for me, it slowly has warmed up and is emanating this amazing mushroomy smell.  It’s actually fantastic, I don’t know what’s in the black velvet rind but it smells divine. The smell of goat is faint, but unmistakable.  The cheese cuts nicely, it’s semi-hard, there are no eyes.

Here goes…

Mmmm.  It’s lemon-goat-mushroom.  It’s surprisingly mild, the goat is pretty chilled out.  There’s a funny kind of bitter note in this cheese, especially as you approach the rind, it’s not offensive, just not what I expected. I suspect this has something to do with the unique properties of this black mold. The cheese has a great texture, it’s creamier that other Spanish goat cheeses I have sampled and melts easily in the mouth. There’s quite a bit of salt, but it’s not overpowering. It’s actually pretty sumptuous, I can see why it’s so popular, although personally, it lacks that peppery bite that I do so love in a goat cheese, and that bitter aftertaste makes this one not quite my slice of cheese-although I would support you if it was yours.

Cheese 110-Tomme de Savoie

 

I almost feel as though my cheese journey has come full circle.  My interest in cheese was first piqued by my daughter’s trip to France and subsequent interest in French cheese.  In reciprocity for her stay in France, we recently became hosts to our very own French exchange student, a charming and bright 17 year old girl.  This girl is so bright and charming that she brought her new Canadian mommy FOUR cheeses from France, yes, that’s right, four.  This clearly illustrates to me that this young lady knows the way to my heart.  It’s simple people, just bring me cheese.  While I have actually previously sampled and adored two of her cheese gifts, Beaufort (mmmmmm) and Abondance (oh yahhhhhhhhh) she also brought the next two beauties I shall review for me-neither of which I have seen in Canada for sale.  You may just have to appreciate these darlings on the page here, I’m not sure if they ever make it to our fair shore- but what an excuse to go to France (does one need an excuse to go to France?)

I have run into the word “Tomme” before in relation to cheese, and have previously reviewed Tomme de Montagne, Tomme Haute Richelieu and Tomme Alsace Fermier.  So what’s with all the Tommes?  It turns out the word “Tomme” (not Dick, not Harry) is a generic cheese word which generally refers to cheese made from many herds mixed, or small alpine cheeses, or skim milk cheeses, or some combination of the three (sorry, that’s as clear as it gets).  The word Tomme is followed by a place name to clarify it’s point of origin.  Hence Tomme de Savoie, is from the …Savoie region, now you get it!

This Tomme is a true Mountain cheese made from skim raw cow’s milk,  milk left over from making cheeses like Beaufort or Gruyere, which are from the exact same region, and tend to hog up all the full-fat milk.  I’m actually all for a skim milk cheese if it gives me that nice cheesy mouth feel, it’s only those wretched low-fat so-called mozzarella type cheeses that have spoiled the whole skim milk cheese thing for me.  It’s good to be open minded about this sort of thing. A girl who loves cheese like me, and is also attempting to watch her weight, needs to be careful-my sample has 30% fat which seems just about right.

According to my research, there are actually many Tomme de Savoies, virtually every village in the area makes one, and the name isn’t controlled by one village.  This cheese does have a designation type that is new for me. I have discussed, at length the AOC designation, a designation that protects the name and terroir of a cheese, but Tomme de Savoie has Protected Geographical Indication or PGI (IGP, Indication Géographique Protégée) which seems to be an “AOC lite” type designation, meaning that this cheese is certified  as being traditional or a typical speciality from a clearly defined region, but without the controlled specification of the AOC.  That’s my best shot at explaining it, folks.  One source online source stated that Tomme de Savoie is currently being considered for an AOC designation but isn’t there yet. Tomme de Savoie obtained the “Protected Designation of Origin” label in 1996.

Tomme de Savoie was first produced by local farmers as a way of using left over skim milk hundreds of years ago and continues to be made in small batches using the same techniques.  The inhabitants of the Savoie region are terribly fond of this cheese, and will eat it with their coffee for their afternoon snack. Tomme de Savoie is made from the milk of Tarine or Abondance cows. After the curd is pressed it is matured for 2-4 months in a traditional cellar, which produces the thick rind and adds flavor. Tomme de Savoie is salted, rubbed and turned over twice a week-lucky!  My lovely stinky wedge of Tomme de Savoie travelled a long way to make it to my table.

This is one of the most fabulous looking cheeses I have ever seen-and that’s really saying a lot this far into my cheese journey.  The rind is dark and forbidding, the interior creamy and pocked with tiny holes.  It just looks like a cheese ought to look-like an authentic cheese, I can imagine a farmer or shepherd munching on this Tomme 1000 years ago on the side of a hill-it just reeks of authenticity and is clearly not a factory-made cheese.  It’s perfectly hideous and unabashed in its cheesy glory.

My French student informs me that the rind is not typically eaten with this cheese, so I shall avoid it-truly it is a little daunting.  While I do enjoy a raunchy rind on my cheese this one is mottled black and brown and a tad too zombie-like for me. Tomme de Savoie smells fabulous in that unwashed toes and uric acid sort of way that I adore, it simpers beside me warming and off-gassing, proclaiming to all that it is a little stinker.

Here goes…

Mmmmm, ohhhhhh.  Much more mild than I was expecting.  It’s a little lemony, that surprises me, there’s also a balance of salt and toes that’s just freaking divine.  Oh!  It’s creamy, much more so than the other Mountain cheeses I have sampled which tend to be semi-hard, this one’s actually quite soft and toothsome, there’s not a lot of chewing involved, it’s perfectly tensile and springy.  I can’t believe this is a low fat cheese-you would never, ever know, the mouth-feel is just as perfectly unctuous as any other full-fat cheese.  It’s actually sticking to my teeth, cleaving to them, it’s made best friends with my tongue, why, “hello!”  There’s a real feel of forest terroir and dank cellars in Tomme de Savoie-make no mistake-while it is relatively mild you can’t deny that hint of mystery and dark places and mushrooms-but it’s all held in perfect balance. This cheese is freaking unbelievable, why doesn’t everyone eat it?

Oh Tomme de Savoie!  You are so scrumptious and low fat, why aren’t you available to me here?  You are definitely my slice of cheese.

Day 89-Tete de Moine AOC

I have been sampling great Canadian cheeses for this last week, but I am now going to deviate from this and round out another 7 or so International cheeses that I want to cover before it is over.  Then it’s back to Canada for the last five.  That’s the plan.  Actually, I’m not sure I can really stop at 100.  It’s become a lifestyle for me.  We shall see!

It’s back to Switzerland for Tete de Moine.  First made in the 1100’s by monks at the Bellelay monastery in the Bernese Jura mountains, the production predictably moved from the monks to the farms controlled by the monastery.  See how hard it is to get a good Monk’s cheese these days? Tete de Moine was given to the monastery as a tithe by the locals- one cheese per monk per farm-family.  Tete de moine actually means Head of the monk.  Some debate exists as to whether this refers to the tithing-per monk’s head-or to the fact that monks had shaved heads or a tonsured appearance which sort of resembles Tete de Moine. Who knows?

Tete de Moine is made from raw cow’s milk. The cheese is still made by the descendents of those local farmers who once tithed it to the monks.  It is currently produced in nine village dairies.  After being formed the cheese is immersed in a brine bath for 12 hours.  This expels water and starts the rind forming.  The cheese is then placed on a pine board where it matures for at least 75 days in a humid and moist cheese cellar.  It is cared for and flipped regularly as well as being brushed with a brine containing salt and bacteria.  This bacterial bathing perhaps explains the super funky smell of this cheese.  Although it doesn’t look like it, Tete de Moine is a washed rind cheese- and those, my friends, are little stinkers. As Tete de Moine is an AOC cheese, the milk from the cows has to come from a limited geographic region and the techniques used to make the cheese are carefully regulated.

Tete de Moine is traditionally shaved and formed into a rosette when being eaten.  These days most people use a specially designed device called a girolle machine to make the cheese rosettes.  Apparently shaving the cheese into this shape allows for lots of oxygen to mix with the cheese and to encourage the flavour.  Tete de Moine and girolles are extremely popular in Switzerland and can be found just about anywhere.  Not so in Canada, where I have had to make do with a paring knife.

I have to address the odour of this cheese. Tete de Moine is by far the stinkiest cheese I have run across in 89 cheeses.  I was initially drawn to it because of its outrageously vile odor.  I couldn’t believe that anyone would spend money on something that smelled like that, so of course-I did.  I have actually had a few house guests smell this one through its wrapper as a party trick-all have recoiled in horror.  Have you ever stuck your finger in your belly button after a really hot day, squished it around, and then smelled it?  That smell, my friends, one could aptly describe as “tete de moine-like.” My children claim that it smells like “throat cheese,” and no- that’s one cheese I will not be reviewing.  It’s really hard to describe how horrible this cheese smells-go and sniff some if you see it in the market, I dare you.  It smells like sickness, and rot, and pain and dirty things excreted by humans.  It looks innocent enough, a half circle of firm yellow cheese with a natural brown rind, it’s kind of crumbly and kind of sticky, but it just smells freaking awful.  Have I been clear enough about this?  It could be used as a torture device.

Here goes…

What the hell is wrong with people?  No, seriously, people eat this cheese? It tastes like old sweaty, raunchy, arm pits mixed with crotch.  Seriously, I can’t eat anymore.  I can’t see how shaping it into a rosette would have any effect on this taste…really, you want more oxygen to bring out the flavour?  Are you freaking insane? Tete de Moine kind of tastes like Emmenthaler gone bad.  There’s that firm almost parmesan texture, and then that alcohol backed mountain cheese taste, but you can’t even think about any of that because you just want to be sick.  God, I think I am going to be sick.  Is it some kind of joke?  Clearly, this one is not my slice of cheese, but if it is yours, perhaps you can speak to a professional.

Day 72-St. Maure de Touraine AOC

 

This blog is unfair to goats and their milk.  I have only reviewed 2 goat milk cheeses-and have proclaimed both to be overly “goaty,” like that’s a bad thing. Just because I have lingering PTSD from goats due to my own hippie childhood, doesn’t mean I should pan a whole breed.  That’s goat-ist and wrong.  I have also neglected the most famous and beloved of all goat cheese-chèvre-which even I like.  This grotesque over site shall be rectified today.

St. Maure de Touraine is a chèvre-a fresh goat’s milk cheese from the Loire region of France,  It’s named after the small town of Saint Maure de Touraine where the cheese was traditionally made.  Goats were introduced to the Loire Valley in the 8th century during the Arab invasions.  When the Arabs left, they also left their goats, which was good of them.  This cheese is still made in the traditional manner-it’s a small log with a stick of straw running horizontally through its middle.  Originally the cheese was formed around the straw to help it keep its shape as it aged due to the delicate and fragile nature of a fresh goat cheese. The straw was also used to patch together broken cheeses. Although inedible, the straw is part of the St. Maure de Touraine experience.

St. Maure de Touraine received AOC status in 1990.  The AOC protects the name-for the most part-and also the method of production for this cheese. The goat’s milk is heated, coagulated and then ladled into long molds where it can drain naturally. After it drains, the straw is inserted-and this is the best part-these days, that formerly vestigal and useless rye straw is now pyrographed with a laser! On each straw is emblazoned a code with the identification number of the cheese-maker.  It’s like a microchip for a dog.  I’m just crazy about this combination of old-timey cheese and new-fangled technology.

After the insertion of the identifier straw, the cheese is covered with salt and ash and left to drain some more-at least 10 days, but up to 4 weeks.  The cheese ages in a cellar and is turned daily. Alas, my straw is cut up and all cheesey, so I can’t figure out the engraving, but it certainly looks genuine.  Actually, this straw engraving thing is making me anxious, why can’t I read my straw?  Most great cheeses also have great pretenders, laying in wait for those buyers not carefully looking for the details.  There is a cheese called  “Sainte-Maure” which is also made in Touraine and looks identical, but doesn’t follow the strict AOC criteria. “Sainte-Maure”  is industrially made and its straw does not bear the correct laser imprinting. This better not be an impostor.  Actually, I do believe that my little log of St. Maure de Touraine is real, straw aside-as the label claims it is AOC.  Who would be foolish enough to tempt the AOC gods?

This little log slice of St. Maure de Touraine  is perhaps the strangest looking cheese I have sampled. The paste is a creamy white.  The rind is an ash, white and blue mould concoction.  I just popped out the straw.  It is dark brown and hollow.  According to cheese lore, you should never start with the narrowest end of the log of this cheese- this is disrespectful and akin to “cutting the udder off a goat.” Alas, it all looked the same to me.  Sorry, goat udder. Speaking of goat udders, there is no mistaking the smell of this cheese.  It is quite goaty, but not in an overly offensive way.  It’s quite mild and inviting-and I say this as a person with a low goat tolerance.

Here goes…

Ohhhh, man, it’s just freaking great!  It’s unbelievably yummy. I can’t believe I’m writing this about a goat’s cheese.  This cheese is shocking! The interior is the creamiest cloud of goat love-smooth, inviting, knowing-but the rind adds a spicy kick.  It’s udderly complex and unbelievably toothsome. It’s just a little sweet, but also salty in perfect harmony.  There is no hint of uric acid-it’s completely smooth, but that rind is making my mouth and throat tingle. I haven’t experienced this before, is it the ash, is it an allergy?  Who knows?  Who cares?  My mouth is confused: it burns, and it melts.  What the hell is in this cheese? (besides a straw).  And to think I thought all chèvre was the same crumbly goat thing, not so! I’m a convert, and you should be too.  Go out and splurge on this strange little log-you can thank me later.

 

Day 71-Reblochon de Savoie AOC

It’s bright and early Tuesday morning.  I am ready to eat cheese. Yesterday’s unfortunate run-in with some bad rind only temporarily sidelined me.  You can’t let one bad cheese spoil the whole plate.  In all things in life-cheese included-we must persevere.

Speaking of persevering, today’s legendary cheese, Reblochon de Savoie-is a true survivor.  Reblochon  has been made since the 13th century.  However, it has spent the majority of its existence as a secret cheese! Reblochon was basically underground and for personal consumption only until the French revolution. Farmers using the pastures in the Haute-Savoie area were made to pay a tax based on their daily milk yield.  To get around this, the farmers only half-ass milked the cows while the tax-man was looking.  When he left, they re-milked the cows and made this cheese from that milk.  The  French verb “reblocher”  means “to squeeze a cow’s udder again”-this re-milked  cheese was only for the family. The French revolution removed heads and also the milk tax.  At last Reblochon was free to come out of the closet…temporarily.

After a couple of hundred years as a legitimate cheese-Reblochon is experiencing a whole new life in the underground.  Although legal in Canada, it is currently illegal for sale in the USA due to recent enforcement of laws regarding raw milk cheese.  Although there are pasteurized or locally made versions of Reblochon for sale (Le Gaulois, reviewed last month was a Canadian take on the cheese,) the real thing is-once again, an outlaw.  There is a plethora of information on the ‘net of people trying to “score” some Reblochon.  An apparent vibrant “black market” for this cheese exists, with die-hard Reblochon fans doing whatever it takes to get their fix. Some shops-unnamed-carry it “under the counter” and sell it to trusted buyers only.

In fact, the whole world of Reblochon is so fraught with issues in the USA  that a crop of fake Reblochon has flooded the market in response to this need. A cheese called Fromage de Savoie was created to try to get around the American raw-milk loophole and replace Reblochon.  Alas, it’s just no good, according to those in the know. In some places Fromage de Savoie is sold  as Reblochon, but beware…it isn’t.  Interestingly, the name “Reblochon” is protected by AOC, but this AOC designation only protects someone from producing a cheese called “Reblochon,” it does not protect a store or distributor from calling a cheese whatever they like.  This suddenly makes a lot of sense to me-there seems to be a disconnect between what some stores are calling some cheese, despite the rules I thought were in place to protect the name.  There’s a lot of mis-named cheese out there in the market place, particularly if the real thing is banned, expensive or difficult to purchase.

Reblochon is a washed rind cow’s milk cheese, designated AOC in 1976.  The AOC regulations stipulate that it is made from raw cow milk only, and made and matured in the Haute Savoie/Rhône Alps region of France. Milk for this cheese comes from the Montbeliard, Abondance and Tarine breed of cow.  Reblochon is made  Industrially, cooperatively and by individual producers.  Reblochon is still made with the creamy milk of a second milking. The curds are poured into molds which are covered with a cheesecloth. The cheesecloth gives the trademark texture to the cheese rind. The cheeses are put into a cellar or caves to dry for the next 6-8 weeks.  They are flipped every second day and washed with whey to aid the development of the rind.
My wedge of legal and authentic Reblochon is just minding its own business.  You couldn’t tell it was a little bad-ass rebel simply by looking at it-it looks like an innocent  brie to me.  The paste is yellow and the rind is white and slightly sticky. The smell is strong-not a gagger.  This is clearly a washed rind cheese though-and all that implies.  There’s a little bit of toes in the nose, but I like that.
Here goes…
Mmmmm.  It’s mild, and buttery, with a little hint of uric acid. It’s mushroomy.  It’s not sweet or salty, and my tongue is always searching for those notes in a cheese.  It’s surprisingly light and savoury and kind of eggy.  It’s pretty chilled out unless you add the rind, which kicks the piquancy up a notch.  Do this at your own peril. The texture is fabulous, it’s gooey and sensual.  It’s a sticky and carnal little cheese that seems to have made great friends with my teeth. I’m torn between the great story of this Rebel-ochon and the underwhelming taste profile.  It’s not the best tasting cheese I have sampled, but I do like it-it’s a saucy little survivor.

Day 70- Ossau-Iraty Fermier AOC

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.

Here goes…

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.