Once upon a time I wrote about Mahón, and my deep and undying devotion for that cheese. I share those feelings equally with another cheese: a sheep’s milk Tomme from France’s Basque country that goes by the name of Ossau-Iraty.
Mahón doesn’t have to worry about me cheating on it; I give these cheeses both the same amount of love. I often recommend them together, and I have them both on my cheese plate at home as often as I can. They are among my top-favorite cheeses—a lofty echelon for a cheese professional.
Whenever there has been a time when I couldn’t get any Ossau-Iraty—and it has happened in two of the shops in which I have worked—it was a time of deep sadness for me. Without Ossau-Iraty in my life, there is a little wheel-shaped hole in my heart where this sheep’s milk cheese belongs. Luckily I haven’t had to pine for the natural-rind cheese in a while.
With each and every bite, Ossau-Iraty fills my palate with delight. More aged versions are firmer, a little saltier, but always well-balanced and full of flavor. Younger versions are firm, but creamy on the tongue and rich without being heavy.
This is a cheese that is just plain great.
But be warned: asking for it by name can be a confusing experience.
The name “Ossau-Iraty” refers to two types of cheese.
On the one hand, it refers to cheeses that carry the designation Ossau-Iraty as a regional style. For these cheeses, the name refers to sheep’s milk cheeses made in the Basque country (Pays Basque) part of the Pyrenees mountains. Cheeses in this category include Tomme Brulée, Abbaye de Belloc, and P’tit Basque, as well as Etcheria, Larceveau, Laruns, and Matocq.
On the other hand, the name refers to Ossau-Iraty cheese that receives name-protection status (AOC, appellation d’origine contrôllée, and PDO, protected designation of origin) because of its 4,000-year-old tradition.
In its full titular glory, the cheese is named Ossau-Iraty brebis Pyrénées AOC. This is the Ossau-Iraty with which I am concerned.
For it, Ossau-Iraty stands for the location where the cheese is made: the Pic du Midi d’Ossau, a famous mountain peak, and the Iraty beech forest. Both are located in the Pyrénées-Atlantiques district of France, in Béarn and the Pays Basque. Ossau-Iraty brebis Pyrénées AOC cheese is made exclusively in this region’s lush, mountainous landscape.
The cheese is essentially a mountain cheese, benefitting from the tradition of transhumance in which shepherds take the sheep up the mountain to graze every summer, then return to the valley in the winter—the same seasonal migration that characterizes Alpine-style cheeses in Switzerland and the French Alps.
Ossau-Iraty is made with milk from three different breeds of sheep (black-faced Manech, red-faced Manech, and Basco-Béarnaise). The cheese must be made from raw, whole milk within 40 hours of milking the sheep. You can find pasteurized versions of Ossau-Iraty, but those won’t be the real-deal Ossau-Iraty brebis Pyrénées AOC.
The beautiful, orange- or beige-rinded wheels of Ossau-Iraty can be considered Tommes because of their shape (a round wheel with flattened top and bottom). They come in 8- to 10-pound wheels, and are aged for 80 to 120 days.
The wheels are typically marked with the stamp of a sheep’s head. Depending on which way the sheep is facing, you know whether or not the cheese was made in a farmhouse or by a dairy: a front-facing ewe signifies a farmstead Ossau-Iraty, and a side-facing ewe signifies a dairy-made wheel.
The cheese’s striking white paste is glorious on a cheese board, simply eaten on bread, nestled into a sandwich, or eaten all by itself with your fingers.
One taste, and you will understand why this cheese is so special. And then you, too, will covet it forever.