In the summer of 2008 i had the pleasure of traveling across Europe. I experienced everything from watching the sunrise in Austria, swimming in the Mediterranean, to witnessing the remains of the Holocaust, but nothing had prepared me to what i would experience in the magnificent, humble, and unexplainable mystifying Basque Country.
The Basque region occupies parts of France and Spain. However, to the people who occupy this region, its neither France nor Spain…It’s different…It’s Basque Country (Euskadi). When driving into the region the evidence becomes very prevalent. From the lush green hills packed shoulder to shoulder with sheep, reminiscent to what you might imagine northern Ireland to look like, to the red roofed villages quaintly placed into the depths of the valleys. Even the road signs were different! Written in what I coined as “Basque Font.”
The language spoken in Basque country is called Euskera, and has no links with any other language. It was used before all other Indo-European languages. There are about 2.5 million people in this region, and 30% of them speak the language. And most children are enrolled in Euskera speaking schools. Basques all throughout history have been know somewhat as strong defenders of their land, fighting off major empires such as the Romans, Vikings, and Muslims.
All this brings me to the whole point of this blog. Basque people have stood the test of time, and with any culture that has been around for a while comes great and I mean fantastic culinary customs. The best of these customs has to be their amazing cheeses! Since there is such a prominent population of ewe’s in this region, most of the cheeses are made of sheep’s milk. Probably the most famous of the cheeses is the Ossau Iraty.
Production of the Ossau Iraty dates back more than 4,000 years, giving it an A.O.C status in France. It’s one of two sheep milk cheeses to receive such a prestigious honor (the other being the great Roquefort). Ossau Iraty is an uncooked cheese made through pressing the curds. Also under regulation it must be made with unpasteurized sheep’s milk. This cheese is usually aged for three months, creating a very light color and very smooth but lingering flavors, reminiscent of medium aged Gruyeres and Comte. The Ossau Iraty can be used in nurmerous recipes (i.e. a stellar Mac and Cheese) giving its great melting abilities, but is best enjoyed by itself.
What makes this cheese so fantastic is that it is a very diverse wine cheese. Have you ever found yourself in the position where you needed to bring a cheese to a wine party and had no idea what wines were being served or had no clue what to cheese to pair with the wine? Never Fear! Ossau Iraty can stand up with the strongest, most burly reds, or pair lovely with a nice sparkling white. Personally i prefer a great pinot noir with the Ossau Iraty, but you be the judge. Play around with it. Try it with quince paste. Drizzle honey on top of it. Pair it with dried dates and figs. That’s what’s so wonderful about this cheese, its an open canvas and your the artist. So the next time your in Di Bruno Brothers, try a piece of history, taste a cheese that has mileage than Parmigiano and Cheddar combined, and touch something that has endured century’s of struggle to keep its history alive.