In the mountains of Irati, in the French Basque Country, transhumance (the seasonal migration of livestock) is an ancestral tradition. In late spring, in the month of June, the flocks would leave the valley floor and be moved up to the mountains until September, to collectively managed pastures where their milk would be processed in the mountain huts known as etxola or cayolar in Basque.
Irati is the name of a river, a splendid plateau more or less in the centre of the French Basque cheese production area and also a forest carpeting these mountains between France and Spain: the largest beech wood in Europe, covering 17,000 hectares, of which only 4,000 are on the French side. Every summer, 20,000 sheep and 2,000 cattle are brought to graze here. Sheep have been herded in these mountains for millennia, as is clear from the remains of settlements and burial places found on the highest peaks, of which the most famous are the cromlechs (tombs) on Mount Okabe.
Today, this tradition is at risk. Only a few dozen herders still practice transhumance, most of whom do not have their own land. Their numbers fall every season.
These highlands are where the traditional Basque sheep’s milk cheese or Ardi Aasna (literally “sheep’s cheese” in Basque) are produced. The pressed, uncooked-curd cheeses, of varying weight and size, are made from raw, full-fat sheep’s milk.
The milk comes from the Manex Tête Noire (increasingly rare), Manex Tête Rouge and Basque-Béarnese breeds. Semi-aged and with a very distinctive flavor, the cheeses are cylindrical in shape. Their rind varies in color from yellow-orange to ash grey. The minimum aging period is from 80 to 120 days or more, when the cheese’s flavor starts to become more distinctive.
Its fragrances recall warm fat mixed with wool and hot milk with a light note of hay, plus vegetal aromas mixed with a touch of pepper and notes of dried fruit and nuts, citrus, cacao and caramel. The tender paste is fatty and soft.
The Presidium for Basque Pyrenees Mountain Cheeses was created to promote cheesemaking from the milk of three local sheep breeds.
The Presidium aims to increase the shepherds’ income, improve the quality of the cheese (which must also be sold at a fair price) and preserve mountain cheesemaking, of importance both for the shepherds as well for the protection and development of this ancient practice.
Thanks to this production, the mountain landscape and the livelihoods of the shepherds are being revitalized.
The Presidium unites fermier producers, those who use only their own animals’ raw milk and who take their flocks up to the mountain pastures in summer.
Many producers are also members of Idoki, a brand created in the particular context of the Basque Country to safeguard local productions, direct sales and local small-scale family productions.
Pyrénées-Atlantiques department, Aquitaine region, northern Basque Country