In the small town of Idiazabal, cheese is a way of life. Thus rightfully named is the Basque cheese, Idiazabal. It is a pungent, firm cheese found in every Basque household, served alone as a snack, dessert, or as an ingredient in different preparations. No cider house meal is complete without a plate of Idiazabal, quince or apple paste, and walnuts. Although it is now produced all over Basque Country, A Denomination of Origen was created in 1987 for those produced in Idiazabal (along with several surrounding regions) to preserve authenticity.
What better place to learn about this quintessential Basque cheese than at artisan Idiazabal makers J. Aranburu, located in Idiazabal. J. Aranburu is a three-man operation, brothers Javier, Juanjo and Jexux: the shepherd, the cheesemaker, and the business man.
Basque Stage’s Andoni Munduate, our tour guide extraordinaire, walked us through the small operation and explained the Idiazabal process. It all starts with unpasteurized whole sheep’s milk exclusively from their own herd of Latxa and Carranzana sheep, a breed indigenous to Basque country. These sheep graze the Basque mountains and valleys, giving the milk its distinct flavor. Their milk yield is low in comparison to other breeds, however the quality is unmatched. Hence the amazing, yet expensive final product.
The milk is heated and curdled using half natural rennet made from dried lamb’s stomach and half chemical rennet. The curds are separated from the whey, broken up into small pieces, and pressed in round molds to form the wheels. The wheels are then brined for 10-12 hours. Finally, they are aged for at least 2 months and up to a year. The wheels are hand turned throughout the aging process. Any mold that forms on the rind during this period is washed off to reveal a pristine, golden wheel. I personally like the mold but what do I know!
Each wheel is stamped with a series of numbers which certify artisanship (designated by the first two numbers 99) and the Denomination of Origin. No impostors here! Idiazabal can also be smoked, however only a very small percentage actually is. Basques seem to prefer it au natural , so the smoked varieties are usually sold to outsiders.
After the tour came my favorite part, tasting. J. Aranburu have won countless awards over the years and for good reason. It’s delicious. We tried a 3 month old wheel which is firm, yet supple. And a one year old wheel which was much drier, but not crumbly. They both have a very nutty, tangy taste with a hint of smoke and a slightly oily feel, but the year old cheese was much more pungent.
Idiazabal is not a cheese you’d want to age for longer than a year. So what happens to the old cheese? It’s mixed with a little bit of cream to make a chunky, spreadable, not to mention absolutely powerful concoction. It’s good but definitely not for the faint of heart, and certainly in moderation.
Inspired by the traditional cider house dessert I decided to treat myself to a special breakfast of apple crepes with grated Idiazabal, honey, walnuts, and a lightly sweetened whipped cream.
Any crepe batter will do, but make sure it rests for at least 30 mins before cooking. I like the recipe we used back at school (below). For the apple compote I cooked down apples with scrapped vanilla bean, honey, brown sugar, and a bit of lemon juice. Spread the compote on the crepe in a thin, even layer. Grate Idiazabal cheese over the top, just enough to give the crepes a delicate salty tang, but not so much that it overpowers the apple compote. Fold the crepe in half, then in half again to form a triangle. Once you’ve filled and folded all of your crepes reheat then in a pan with a bit of left over clarified brown butter. To plate, drizzle with honey and garnish with crushed walnuts and whipped cream. YUM!
yield: 2 servings
pinch of salt
20g clarified, brown butter (plus extra to grease pan)
1.Whisk all ingredients until smooth. Rest in refrigerator for at least 30 mins.
2.Very lightly grease a medium size non-stick pan with the brown butter. Wipe away any excess butter with a paper towel.
3.Once hot, but not smoking, add the batter using a small ladle. Gradually pour the batter into the center of the pan while holding the pan off the burner and tilting/rotating to spread the batter, covering the entire surface with a thin, even layer. It takes a bit of practice to get the tilt and pour down. On the upside its an excuse (like you even need one) to make crepes more often.
4.Cook until lightly browned, flip, and lightly brown the other side.
5.Grease the pan every couple of crepes. Spread cooked crepes on a sheet pan. Do not stack!