Ossau-Iraty cheese — A Taste of the Mountains

In Homer’s Odyssey, the second oldest work of Western literature written almost 3000 years ago, the mythical, man-eating Cyclops derived their terrifying power and strength from their shepherd’s diet of sheep’s cheese and milk. Sheep are one of the first animals domesticated by man, and their milk and its products were most likely among the first “processed” foods that humans created. And while cow’s milk has come to dominate these days, there are plenty of good reasons why you might want to choose the deliciously creamy flavours of, say, an Ossau-Iraty, a cheese with a history almost as long as the Odyssey.

From the Basque beech forests and Béarnaise mountain valleys of the Pyrenees in the Southwest of France, Ossau-Iraty is defined by difficult local conditions including mountainous terrain, seasonal and irregular rainfall and eroded soils. Such an environment however provide the perfect grounds for an agriculture based on hardy sheep, whose sweet milk provides the cheeses and yoghurts that provided vital protein for the local population.

Their products have a special taste and flavour, quite different from the cheese made from cow’s milk. The cheeses are rich, thanks to sheep milk’s high butterfat content, with nutty, floral flavours that derive from a steady diet of grasses, herbs and flowers during the spring pasture season. Their firm, slightly granular texture make this a delicious cheese to eat on its own, but it’s also delicious with fruit chutneys or, as with local traditions, a black cherry preserve. It can also be grated into soups and casseroles.

In summer, the sheep are central to a tradition that goes back thousands of years too, when the animals are herded high up the mountains to graze the meadows in a practice known as transhumance. There, they themselves influence the composition of the landscape by favouring certain plants and avoiding others. And as a result, the mountain meadows have developed a local flavour that shows up in their dairy products.

Naturally, it’s impossible to think of French cheese without also considering the wine, and Ossau-Iraty pairs beautifully with fruity, full-bodied reds or whites from Bordeaux or the Loire, but especially with Madiran, Jurançon or Pacherenc du Vic Bilh, which also come from the same region. It’s also beautiful with a sherry or brown ale.

For those who are reluctant to try cheese, or may be lactose intolerant, sheep’s cheeses are definitely worth exploring. Sheep milk also contains lactose, but it is of a different structure from the lactose in cow’s milk which can cause so many people so many problems. And it also boasts almost twice as much protein as cow’s milk, which means that if you’d like to become as strong as a cyclops, it might be a good idea to start adding sheep’s milk to your diet.

Just as well we have plenty of artisan, farmhouse made Ossau-Iraty at all of our Khéma outlets , specially selected and brought to us by our suppliers, Frères Marchand.