A trip through the French Basque country is one of distinct sights, scents, and flavors. Rolling hills of green pastures are punctuated by craggy mountain peaks and deep valleys, and sheep are everywhere! When Ihsan, Valerie and I traveled through the area in the fall, we tasted a huge array of sheep milk cheeses and an assortment of intense but beautiful wines. Here, we’re featuring a few of our favorite tastes: Ardi Gasnas from Fromagerie Pardou and Ekiola, and a killer red wine from Domaine Ilarria of Irouléguy. Ardi Gasna (or gazna) is Basque for “sheep cheese,” and these smooth, rich sheep cheeses are a specialty in the Pyrénées mountains.
Fromagerie Pardou is an affineur, meaning that they don’t make cheese, they age it. Pardou acquires cheeses from a number of little farms in their area operating on the “dîme” – or tithe – system in which they get to keep a percentage of the cheese. No money changes hands, just cheese! The cheeses arrive very young and are babied to maturity by the Pardou staff. The Pardou aging cave was built by closing off the two ends of a defunct train tunnel. The inside of this man-made cave consistently has the perfect temperature and humidity for aging cheese.
Ekiola is unique in that it’s the only fermier cheese we bring in from the Pyrénées. Fermier is French for “farm,” meaning that all the cheese from Ekiola is made on one farm with milk from the family’s own sheep. Ekiola is a tiny operation as you can see from the size of their cheesemaking facility! The family takes the sheep to graze in high mountain pastures during the summer months, and family members take turns staying in the mountain hut with the sheep. “Ekiola” is actually the Basque word for the mountain hut.
All of the cheeses we import from this area pair naturally well with the local cherry jam. Arraya’s jam is made with local tart red cherries, not the black cherries that are more well-known. This sweet-tart jam is a lovely contrast to a rich, creamy Ardi Gasna.
Domaine Ilarria is a biodynamic winery in the Irouléguy A.O.C., about an hour and a half drive from Fromagerie Pardou. Most of the wine made in Irouléguy is made by the local co-op, Domaine Ilarria is one of the few independent wineries. Grapes grow here on steep slopes that have reddish soil from a high iron content. Ilarria’s red is a blend of peppery Cabernet Franc, rich Cabernet Sauvignon, and dark-skinned Tannat. This is a serious, savory wine with some cassis fruit but stiff tannins that make it very dry. Adding a smear of Arraya cherry jam to your cheese as you taste the three together brings out a bit of a bright cherry note in the wine. Bon appétit!