Our First Cheese in France
It’s a distant memory now, but the first cheese I bought when I came to France was Ossau-Iraty. It wasn’t bought for any reason other than it looked unintimidating. There it was on a refrigerated shelf at the Franprix, a common supermarket chain with stores in virtually every neighborhood, surrounded by things that looked stinkier and moldier and riskier than it. The only other cheese I recognized was the chèvre, but past experience told me I wouldn’t like it. (I later discovered that this conclusion was premature, mainly because American goat cheeses are as offensively tangy as American chardonnays are oaky. There are much better of both.) A baguette de tradition was purchased from the bakery on the ground floor of our apartment building and we went up to eat.
The cheese was cold. While not a surprise given its provenance, we realized quickly that, like wine, it was possible for it to be too cold. Undeterred, we started to munch away. As the cheese warmed, the cold dull flavors gave way to a soft tanginess that went well with the fruity white (probably from the Bordeaux region) we had bought to drink with it. We noticed how the flavors intensified closer to the rind, which is often removed in the States. We experimented by shaving thin slices off the wedge and cutting little chunks to see how the texture and flavor changed. Thin slices were less tangy but melted on the tongue, while the small rectangles were perfect for a burst of taste with a mouthful of the crusty baguette. We loved it.
In the months that followed before our first visit to the fromagerie, we experimented (in very limited fashion!) with the Franprix’s selection. We tried tomme de Savoie, tomme de Pyrenees, and Emmental. Though our tastes have expanded greatly since we discovered the riches of our local cheese store, the accessible and delicious Ossau-Iraty remains a family favorite to this day.
The Pays Basque
We vacationed in the Pays Basque in April 2014, five years after we first tried Ossau-Iraty. While American foodies will know mainly the South side of the Basque Country (specifically the town of San Sebastian), this beautiful stretch of land with its unique culture and language that date back to Roman times spans the French-Spanish border along the western coastline extending up to Biarritz. Ossau-Iraty gets its name from the Pic du Midi d'Ossau (a peak in the Valley of Ossau that is its key feature) and the Forêt d’Iraty (Iraty Forest), both of which are in the Pyrénées-Atlantiques department of France. Our overnight flight through Paris arrived at Bilbao in full Spring splendor under perfect blue skies. We spent the next week happily exploring the triangle formed by San Sebastian, Biarritz, and Ezcaray (in the equally beautiful Rioja region) enjoying landscapes, food, and wine.
It was in the seaside town of Saint-Jean-de-Luz where we first encountered farm-produced Ossau-Iraty. Fromage fermier, as it’s called, is a regulated product made with raw, unpasteurized milk. I bought it at a small stand along the main pedestrian street in town. The crowded store offered a variety of other regional products, but chiefly meat, cheese, and wine. I selected a small jar of black cherry jam, the traditional accompaniment to the cheese, and a bottle of red wine from the Navarre region (just over the border in Spain) to complete the tasting.
That evening, I sat on the balcony of our hotel overlooking the sea in Bidart with my cheese, my jam, and my wine, the family fast asleep. There are few perfect moments in life. This was one of them.
About the Cheese
Firmness: Semi Firm
Defining characteristics: Ossau-Iraty is a very accessible cheese in terms of taste, mildly tangy with little odor.
Traditional accompaniments: Black cherry jam and a bottle of fruity red from the region guarantees a trifecta of tastes. Bread, cheese, jam. Lather, rinse, repeat!
Origin: Basque country, the French side, in the department of Pyrénées-Atlantiques.
Special facts: Ossau-Iraty is one of the few cheeses subject to strict guidelines under the French AOC (appellation d’origine controlée) designation. The guidelines relate to geographical origin and fabrication and are designed to guarantee the continuity of traditional food products. It has also earned the AOP distinction (appellation d’origine protégée), a European Union designation essentially equivalent to AOC.
Recipes: I’ve never cooked with Ossau-Iraty, but in writing this post I happened to come across what looks like a delicious quiche. It makes perfect sense!