The Basque cheese taking on the world14-12-2018
Its subtle, hazelnnut taste and delicate texture has far surpassed the frontiers of its native Basque country, taking it right up there on the roster of the French cheese greats, and making it a firm favourite among cheese aficionados.
Tell us about yourself, Ossau-Iraty, who are you?
Ossau-Iraty is a sheep’s milk cheese carrying the coveted AOP status and is produced in the Béarn and Basque Country in south west France. This 100% local cheese is made using milk from three local breeds of sheep that have grazed in the region since the dawn of time. This pressed, uncooked cheese is 100% natural and also carries a free from additives and non-GMO guarantee. As for taste, Ossau-Iraty scores highly on flavour too. And depending on whether it comes from Béarn or the Basque country, made using unpasteurised or thermised milk, produced on the farm or by specialist cheesemakers, in the valley in winter or spring, or when the herds graze on the mountain pastures, Ossau-Iraty comes in a wide variety of styles, offering a multitude of textures, flavours and aromas. The aromatic profile will vary greatly depending on the level of maturation, and here too the choice is vast. The young cheese, having undergone just four months’ ageing, is mild, creamy, floral and spring-like, revealing tangy notes. After 8 months, the cheese acquires a fruitier taste, leaning towards hints of hazelnut and is well-balanced on the palate. Mature Ossau-Iraty, aged for more than 12 months, delivers more intense, lingering flavours. And you’ve guessed it, there really is an Ossau-Iraty for everyone.
Ossau-Iraty wins over Michel & Augustin and Okina biscuits
For a year now, the rules governing the production of AOP Ossau-Iraty have evolved, and the cheese can now be sold in the shape of cubes or sticks, thin slices or shavings, in response to new trends in consumption, including appetisers, snacking, and food-on-the-go. Ossau-Iraty shortbread biscuits are now available, flavoured with tomatoes and Espelette pepper from Michel & Augustin, or savoury biscuits from Basque artisan biscuit fabricant Okina. The fact that both producers have focused on the flavours of Ossau-Iraty is further proof of its popularity among consumers. Delphine Lacoste, tasked with innovation at Michel & Augustin explains: « On the back of the success of our first recipe, we have continued to develop additional recipes with a focus on south west France. I have personally spent a great deal of time in the region’s famous ochre and white villages in my quest to discover the finest Ossau-Iraty! »
One of the world’s finest cheeses
Ossau-Iraty produced by Agour was pipped to a close second at the World Cheese Awards held in Bergen, Norway in November. This is a tremendous accolade at one of the most prestigious international cheese tasting competitions, where a panel of 230 international experts selected the finest cheeses from a total 3,472 entries. In addition, Ossau-Iraty Esquirrou took top honours at the World Championship Cheese Contest held in Wisconsin, US in March this year. Yet more proof that Ossau-Iraty has a truly global reach and is popular the world over. Jessica Affato, owner of Harbor Cheese and Provisions, a well-known cheese specialist in New York, provides the perfect example. « It was one of the first cheeses that my customers asked for when I first opened » she explains. « For me, the real differentiator is that it can be enjoyed at any moment of the day, for any occasion ». The New Yorker and self-professed French cheese lover, organises tastings and technical courses focused on Ossau-Iraty. Another example is Murray’s Cheese, a specialist retailer selling Basque cheese all over the US.
AOP Ossau-Iraty two ways
If you fancy a spot of cooking with Ossau-Iraty, this cheese lends itself particularly well to a huge variety of recipes, and would make an excellent addition to risotto or even enhance fillet steak!
To bring a touch of magic to scallop risotto, heat stock in a large saucepan and leave on a low heat to simmer. Meanwhile, peel and finely chop an onion, melt 25g of butter in a frying pan and fry gently until the onion softens. Add the risotto rice, and when it starts to become translucent, pour in a generous slug of white wine. Allow the wine to reduce – you might have to turn up the heat – and then begin to gradually add the stock, ladle by ladle, until the rice is cooked thoroughly. Turn down the heat and add a generous chunk of AOP Ossau-Iraty, and a large knob of butter, and stir well. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Set aside and keep warm. Meanwhile, heat a frying pan, add cooking oil, and sear the scallops. Season and serve on top of the risotto.
To add a burst of flavour to your fillet steak wrapped in streaky bacon, Ossau-Iraty will do the trick. Simply lay out slices of streaky bacon on the work surface, overlapping them slightly. Cover with slices of Ossau-Iraty. Place the steak on top and wrap in the bacon and cheese. Tie with string and transfer to a dish. Add two cloves of garlic in the bottom of the dish, some wine and 5cl of water. Place in a pre-heated oven and roast at 180°C for 30 minutes. Baste after 15 minutes.
Meanwhile, peel a couple of sweet potatoes and cut into large chunks. Steam over boiling water until soft. Purée using a ricer or food mill and then add a generous slug of single cream. Slice the meat and season lightly.
Serve with the sweet potato purée and a few fresh sage leaves to garnish.