The Basque Country is an autonomous region found in northern Spain nestled along the western range of the Pyrenees mountains, forming a triangle with the Ebro Valley to the south and the Bay of Biscay to the west. The region accounts for less than two percent of Spain’s total landmass, but has an incredibly diverse landscape featuring rugged high mountains, dry inland plains, and a rocky Atlantic coastline. These regions all have long histories of sheepherding and cheesemaking. We’ve selected three cheeses that illustrate the wide ranging flavors found in sheep’s milk.
Idiazabal is a hard cheese made with unpasteurized sheep’s milk. Idiazabal has a hard, brown, inedible rind that is sometimes smoked, lending a subtle smokiness to the finished cheese. This treatment is often done to replicate traditional, non-commercial Basque cheeses which were aged inside farmer’s homes and took on the smoky flavor of the household hearth. The Denomination of Origin (DO) regulations require that milk used from Idiazabal come from local Latxa sheep. Beneath the brown rind is a pale yellow interior that is quite dense with minimal holes. The flavor of the cheese is buttery and slightly tangy, and is best complemented by sweet quince jam with which it is traditionally served.
Etxegarai is similar to Idiazabal in that it is a lightly smoked sheep’s milk cheese, but unlike Idiazabal, Etxegarai does not have a DO designation and can be made from a mix of different sheep’s milk. The flavor of Etxegarai is grassy barnyard with subtle smoke and fruitiness. Aged for only six months, Etxegarai is young, springy, and supple in texture.
Roncal comes from Navarra, Spain near the French border, and is a firm sheep’s milk cheese. The flavor of Roncal is light, grassy, and sweet. Roncal is aged for four to six months and looks similar to Manchego with its pale brown rind and buttery yellow interior. Unlike Manchego, however, Roncal’s rind can develop a soft grey mold on the exterior. Roncal is dense and hard with high levels of butterfat that glisten on cut portions of the cheese