Posted 24 April 2003 - 03:47 PM
Thank you for joining us here on eGullet. My questions is about cheese.
I've enjoyed Brebis from southwest France, which I understand the Basques have been making for several thousand years. I also like Idiazabal, from just across the border in Spain. Both are sheep's milk cheeses.
I wonder if you could direct me to other cheeses from the region that are worth trying, especially any that may be available in the US. Are goat and cow milk cheeses produced in the Pyrenees as well, or are sheep the primary source?
MadVal, Seattle, WA
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Posted 26 April 2003 - 07:21 PM
I would imagine that along with sheep's milk cheeses you would be able to find some goat's milk as well. Both do really well up in the mountains, whereas the cows like it a bit lower.
Posted 27 April 2003 - 12:04 PM
If you like strong cheese that will put hair on your chest, you might seek out some of the Spanish Tupi. It originated in Catalonia, but we have purchased Basque-made Tupi. The cheese comes in a glass or earthen jar and is more like a thick cheese spread usually made from goat or sheep cheese mixed with alcohol, and perhaps some olive oil or milk, and fermented and aged for three months. It is tan in color. I believe the name Tupi is taken from the Catalan word for a type of earthenware pot.
We, too, enjoy all the varieties of Brebis cheeses from the soft to those aged for about a year for a harder, stronger product.
In southwestern France, we sampled the Brebis Percier, an excellent blue cheese made from ewe’s milk, which was extremely buttery with a robust and savory ‘blue’ flavor. In Pau, we discovered an unusual soft sheep cheese from a ‘fermier’ in Rouergue. It was given the name Brebichon, and was most similar to a ripe, runny Camembert - with the vigorous, but mellow, savory flavors of a brebis-sec hard cheese. If you take this cheese back to the confines of your hotel room, beware of the strong, permeating, ripe smell. The Brebichon was one of our favorite recent cheese finds. A good representative of the semi-soft to semi-hard brebis cheeses, that I know I have seen in the U.S., is the Basque Étorki.
In the Iraty-Ossau appellation, along the Route du Fromage, we found several examples of sheep and cow, or goat and cow, or sheep and goat milk cheese combinations. Unfortunately, it is difficult to provide identifying names for most of these products, as they are usually made by individual ‘fermiers’ who have handwritten signs merely indicating that a huge round of cheese is “brebis-vache.” In local shops in both southwestern France and northern Spain we purchased an Ardi-Gasna variety sheep cheese named Ardia. It was a deliciously flavorful, semi-soft, smooth unctuous-textured cheese. In the town of Ceret, we purchased individual serving-sized rounds (about 1.5 inch diameter and 3/8-inch thickness) of a hard, fresh, brebis cheese, which, based on its appearance, I thought would be a soft, runny chevre. It tasted fresh and savory, and although pressed to a hard consistency, was very smooth and melting on the tongue. A few days later, in the same area, we were served a small, one-serving sized cheese that was very similar in appearance and texture to that small brebis round. The main difference was that the interior color was much whiter, and it had the faintest hint of goat – as it was, in fact, made from goat’s milk.
Although I am not a huge fan of the extremely goaty goat cheeses in the U.S., some of the best cheeses I have tasted in southwestern France were made from 100% goat’s milk. A Tomme de Chevre from the area around Pau and another goat cheese purchased during market day in Clermont de l’Herault, were both wonderfully balanced, creamy rich, smooth, semi-soft cheeses with a complexity of strong but not overpowering flavor. If I had not been told, I would not have guessed that either of them had been made from pure goat’s milk – or any goat’s milk at all. They were both cut from large rounds, 18 inches or more in diameter and 5 to 6 inches high. The thick rind on the chunk from the Clermont market had a mottled, ashy-gray coat over a thin yellow layer of some substance that I took to be a culture or desirable mold.
As with winemaking, a number of factors will affect an individual type of cheese, from one producer to the next, and one year to the next - the species of sheep, cow, or goat, the season, and the vegetation on which they fed, to name a few. If you are very keen on learning more about the cheeses of this area, the very best resource I discovered is The French Cheese Book by Patrick Rance, published in 1989 by MacMillan London. Although he does not cover Spain, he provides an incredible wealth of background information and history about the cheeses of the Pyrenees and western Languedoc regions, and all the departments of France. This book is no longer in print, but used copies can be hunted down. I was very sorry to hear that Mr. Rance passed away just a few years ago.