Intern Gabrielle Roman looks into what makes French cheeses tick for her blog series, Bon Fromage. Meant to answer any questions you might have but were afraid to ask about cheese made from the country famous for fromage, each post will focus on a specific cheese and take a deep dive into its history and production. Take the plunge and demystify the world of French cheese. If you missed it, check out last week’s post on the revolutionary Camembert.
It’s time for Bon Fromage to say bon voyage. This is the last post of my series on French cheese, so I’m closing out the way I started: with sheep’s milk cheese. This post will be a little different and focus on two cheeses from the same area of France, rather than my usual focus on one cheese. I decided to do this because while it’s important to look at the history of cheese and how it plays into a country’s culture, it’s also important to see how the cheesemaking process evolves and leads to new things. So, I’ll be going far back into the past for Ossau-Iraty and taking a look at Abbaye de Belloc, one of the more recent cheeses it inspired.
Osssau-Iraty has the most fantastical of all cheese creation stories discussed in this series. While it might also be the most fictional of all the cheese creation stories, accepting the story at face value makes Ossau-Iraty the oldest of all French cheeses. Or really, all cheeses in the world. You see, rumor has it that Ossau-Iraty was created by Aristee, a sheepherder who had the distinction of being the son of Apollo. The likelihood of a Greek god’s son inventing a cheese is pretty slim, but I like to think this story pays homage to the methods of making sheep’s milk cheeses in France, methods that date back 3,000 years! That means Ossau-Iraty existed before France existed. In fact, the cheese predates our alphabet. If you place the first production of Ossau-Iraty at about 1000 BCE, it coincided with the development of the Phoenician alphabet, the precursor to the letters and characters of what you’re reading right now!
In addition to its ancient roots and divine aura, Ossau-Iraty also held economic significance: In the 14th century, sheep’s milk cheese was actually a recognized exchange value. This means that you could pay your bills with Ossau-Iraty if you needed to. If only we could all raise a herd of sheep and pay our taxes with cheese…
In 1980, Ossau-Iraty was granted AOC status, making it only one of two sheep’s milk cheeses to be granted this status. I discussed the other, Roquefort, in my first entry to the series. Ossau-Iraty is produced in two regions: the Northern Basque Country and Bearn, which are located in the southwest of France along the border with Spain. The name of the cheese comes from the Ossau Valley in Bearn, positioned close to the French Pyrenees mountains.
Ossau-Iraty is mostly produced with the milk from red-nosed Manech ewes, and while the milk must be whole milk, it can be pasteurized or raw. As I’ve learned, the AOC loves to control every aspect of production, which means that official Ossau-Iraty comes in two sizes. The small one has a diameter of 20 cm, or about 8 inches, and weighs 4.5–6.5 pounds. The larger size has a diameter of 25 cm, or about 10 inches, and weighs about 9–11 pounds. The cheese ages for 80–120 days, giving it one of the longer aging periods and making it eligible for import to the US.
But just because these standards are so exact doesn’t mean there isn’t any seasonal variation. The old practice of transhumance, employed by shepherds for centuries, is still in effect today. The way it works is this: shepherds take sheep to the upper mountain pastures during the summer and do their milking and cheesemaking in mountain huts. In the autumn, sheep are taken down the lower slopes. Sheep will get a tastier and more varied diet in the summer and that taste transfers to the cheese, making the summer versions of Ossau-Iraty the one you should go for if you really want to taste the best it has to offer.
What is the best it has to offer? Ossau-Iraty is nicknamed the “farmer’s dessert” for being creamy and buttery with notes of fruit, nuts, and herbs. Any cheese that’s so good it can be eaten as dessert has to be worthy of note.
Abbaye de Belloc builds off the rich tradition of Ossau-Iraty. The thing I love about Abbaye de Belloc is that the description of the cheese makes it sound ancient. It is produced by Benedictine monks at the Abbaye de Notre Dame in Aquitane, following 3,000 years of tradition. You would think monks following ancient practices would place the origins of Abbaye de Belloc several hundred years earlier, but in truth it was first produced in the 1960s.
Wheels are aged four to ten months—even longer than Ossau-Iraty—so that cheese made in December are sold in April and those made in July are held until the following April or May. Carefully aging the cheese brings out its rich, caramelized flavors. Abbaye de Belloc is sweet and mild and has aromas of brown sugar. Both Ossau-Iraty and Abbaye de Belloc make great dessert companions. The first is buttery, nutty, and fruity, while the second is sweet, caramel-y, and nutty. Two different desserts cut from the same mold!
Without Ossau-Iraty, there would be no Abbay de Belloc, which has ensconced itself firmly in the cheesemaking tradition despite its recent development. These two cheeses show how you can take a good system and change it a little to make something new without completely reinventing the wheel. The French clearly know what they’re doing when it comes to cheese. Why not use all that knowledge to good effect?
There’s one final piece of the puzzle to wrap up. Who wins the culture king count? This week, Ossau-Iraty earned 3 points for the sheer fact that it was created by the son of Apollo. Not technically a king, but being a demi-god is at least as good. He gets thrown up onto the board and we’re still left with the question of who wins. Because the rules are made up and the points don’t matter, I’m going with Napoleon. At the start of this venture, I knew a lot of cheeses had ties to kings but I had no idea that Napoleon Bonaparte would end up being included in so many cheese stories. What is it about the guy? I can’t say. In second place, I’m giving it up to Marie Hamel and the priest who created Camembert because what better claim to being French than being born out of the Revolution? That is seriously cool. Honorable mentions to Charlemagne and Charles VI for loving and sponsoring cheese hundreds of years ago. Below you’ll find my rankings. Who do you think deserved to win the count? What was your favorite bit of cheese history?
Researching the history and production of cheese has been a blast. As a self-proclaimed history nerd, trying to figure out origin stories of cheese is a really fun task. Plus, cheese is so important to the fabric of France that there’s a lot out there. I could have run this blog for months to come with all the cheeses I was forced to leave off the list. What I’ve learned is that while all these cheeses have status, none of them are unapproachable. They were all stumbled upon some way or another and developed to become what they are today. Understanding cheeses makes them less scary and, I think, also gives an insight into France’s history. Really, learning about cheese can give surprising insight into any country, and I recommend looking into the past of any new cheeses you try. Maybe it’ll help you start up an interesting conversation at your next French cheese tasting party. Or it’ll finally convince you to buy that plane ticket and go on vacation. Whatever the case, explore cheese and broaden your horizons!
culture king count:
WINNER: Napoleon Bonaparte for factoring into more cheese stories than I expected. He lopped the top of Valençay, enjoyed Époisses, and possible named Camembert. Not to mention, he had some serious swagger.
SECOND PLACE: Marie Hamel and the priest who made Camembert. Can’t get more French than being born during the revolution.
HONORABLE MENTIONS: Charlemagne for essentially creating the modern idea of France and recording the importance of goats.
Charles VI for giving Roquefort protected status hundreds of years ago and loving the marvelous Maroilles.
Aristee, the sheepherding son of Apollo, for creating Ossau-Iraty.
Reblochon farmers for milking less than they could to pay fewer taxes.
Trajan for possibly hearing about Beaufort up in Gaul before France existed.
Philip II, Louis IX, Francis I for enjoying Maroilles but not saying anything interesting about it.