This past fall, Ihsan, Valerie and I spent a rainy week in October traveling through southern Gascony and the Pays Basque region of southwestern France. Following the mountains along the French and Spanish border, the narrow, curvy roads passed through shady forested nooks, over cold rivers and around very steep green hills dotted with fluffy sheep. The cheeses made from the rich milk of these sheep or ‘brebis,’ were the focus of our journey but, along the way, we were treated to the very best of rustic, rich Gascon and Basque foods.
We began our cheese tour of the region by visiting with an affineur or ager of cheese named Christian. His lovely cheese cave is located in a defunct railroad tunnel. Local farmers who don’t have the space or the time to properly age and care for their own cheeses bring them to Christian’s cave, which is operated on a traditional trading system, referred to as the dîme (“tithe” in English) where the cave’s owners keep one cheese out of every 12 that they age. No money is exchanged. Nearly all of the cheeses aged here are produced in the mountain zone, La Haute Vallée Béarnaise, where sheep graze on lush mountain pastures. The finished brebis tommes exemplify the sheep’s milk cheese style of the region: large wheels with rounded edges, smooth in texture and rich in flavor.
A little further west, we visited another affineur who operates on the same system, but on a smaller scale. Mary-Jo ages cheeses from only 20 farmers, located around the Haut-Béarn region. Her small cheese cave is located in the old stone barn of a 17th century chateau. Besides the typical sheep’s milk cheeses, Mary-Jo also impressed us with her cow’s milk and also her goat’s milk cheeses. All share the same semi-firm consistency and have the buttery, herbal flavor that comes from really good quality milk. We also picked up a bit of her black cherry jam, a very typical accompaniment to the region’s rich cheeses. One of the best parts of visiting Mary-Jo was having dinner with the owners of the chateau! We were treated to a rustic vegetable soup and then an ultra-satisfying meal of confit duck legs and breasts, served with green beans and potatoes fried in duck fat. All vegetables were, of course, grown in the garden of the chateau. The after-dinner course featured Mary-Jo’s cheeses and homemade fruit jams.
Just a few miles from Mary-Jo’s cave, we left Gascony and entered the Pays-Basques. We started to see road signs that were printed in the mystifying Euskara language as well as in French, and houses and businesses were decorated with Basque crosses, bright colors and signs in the typical Basque font. Our favorite cheese visit in this part of the Pyrénées was to a little co-operative. Here, under the friendly guidance of Bruce Springsteen lover Peio, sheep’s milk is collected from 17 local farmers and made into the traditional Basque Ardi Gazna and the AOC Brebis d’Ossau. Only one full time person is employed to make the cheese, but he has help from a part time worker in addition to 6 hour rotating shifts by the farmers themselves. The goal of this relatively young co-op is to provide an outlet for farmers to sell their milk at a good price, superior to the industrial rates, thereby allowing the farmers to preserve their heritage of traditional, local cheeses. We loved their hearty, complex and satisfying Ardi Gazna and are proud to be able to add it to our cheese wall. We’re certainly happy to eat our fill of this delicious cheese to help out these farmers!
After 4 days of eating cheese all day every day, we decided to take a little break and spend a day in the town of Itxassou. Famous for its cherries, Itaxassou (or Itsasu in Basque) is also one of eleven AOC towns permitted by the French government to grow one of our all-time favorite hot peppers: Piment d’Espelette.
Our trip fell just at pepper harvest time and, when we arrived at our favorite family-run Piment d’Espelette farm, mother, daughter and neighbor were working together cleaning these bright red peppers. Naturally, we wanted to join in, so we quickly donned aprons and rubber gloves and sat down to help, instantly doubling the workforce! We learned to split each pepper individually, to check inside for mold, and then to pop off the stem. Good peppers went into crates, and the very few bad peppers were tossed out.
While we worked, we chatted about the history of the farm (the farm house is so old that no one knows exactly how old it is, just that it was built sometime in the 1400s) and the other tasks the family performs (like taking care of their sheep). We took a walk down the hill to see the pepper fields, and also traveled a short distance by car to see the drying machine and the pulverizer used to make the dried peppers into the fluffy piment d’espelette. The two machines are shared by 5 small pepper producing farms. Dinner that night was in the town of Espelette, a town or two over from Itaxassou, and naturally every plate was either pre-sprinkled with the bright red flakes, or served with a dish of the pepper on the side.
The story of our trip would be incomplete if we failed to mention the enormous salad we were had for dinner in Espelette. This “salad” was served on a plate the size of a hubcap. The greens were almost completely obscured by 5 or 6 huge slices of jamón, a mountain of hot confited duck hearts and gizzards, and two heroic slabs of foie gras torchon sprinkled with coarse salt and piment. It was, in short, a monument to the interplay of Gascon and Basque cuisine, and only with the help of a bottle (or two) of dark red Irouleguy wine did we power through it. The very next day, after recovering from dinner, we placed our Piment d’Espelette order.
One of the last stops on our tour was the village of Sare, where, in the 16th century Arraya Hotel, we dined on sheep’s milk crème brulee and discovered one of our best finds yet – perfect Basque jams made from fresh, local fruits. The Arraya cherry jam is made from red, rather than black cherries, and has an enticing tartness that perfectly balances the sweetness. All of the flavors are absolutely exquisite with cheese, and were the perfect ending to a very successful cheese-finding trip.