Ossau Iraty is a wonderful sheep's milk cheese produced in a specific area of the French Pyrenées. The name is derived from the production area that includes two neighboring provinces: the Ossau Valley, located in the Bearn and Iraty, a forested area in the French Basque Pyrenées.
Ossau Iraty is one large family of sheep's milk cheeses from this general region that includes Abbaye de Belloc, Valle d'Aspe, Istara and several others. Milk for production comes from the local breeds of sheep, the Manech and Basco-Bearnaise.
The practice of transhumance is still very much a feature of these regions, whereby the shepherds take their sheep to the upper mountain pastures during the summer months to graze on the rich summer grass and flowers. During this time, milking and cheesemaking take place in the mountain huts known as "cayolar," where the shepherds live during the summer. In the autumn the sheep are brought back down to the lower slopes and kept closer to the farm. Cheeses made during the summer are traditionally prized above those made during the winter for their superior flavor.
Ossau Iraty was granted AOC (name protected) status in 1980. However, while these regulations govern the general production process and animal management, there remain several variations of the cheese between regions.
Production centers around eight major dairies or co-operatives who draw their supply from some 2,000 small farms and dairies. Of these, approximately 100 are farmhouse producers.
The texture of Ossau Iraty is uniformly smooth, close and dense and yet remains supple. Flavors are sweet and nutty, with pleasant notes of earth, cellar - especially with the cheeses made during the winter - and flavors of grass, flowers and savory vegetal notes from the summer cheeses.