Hooked on Cheese: Ossau-Iraty

This is a perfect sheep's-milk cheese

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Ossau-Iraty is an AOC-designated cheese from the French Pyrenees.

I recently received word from an old friend at Agour Fromages that a representative from this renowned Basque dairy was in New York City and wanted to meet me for a cheese tasting. Hmmm … an opportunity to feast on cheeses from a dairy that has won the World Cheese Awards not once, but twice? How could I refuse? I was only somewhat familiar with the cheeses produced by this family-owned-and-run dairy, but I loved the ones I knew and jumped at the chance to get to know them better.

Agour is located on the west side of the French Pyrenees, the mountain range that forms a natural barrier between France and Spain. They specialize in sheep’s milk cheeses, and the Ossau-Iraty — an AOC-designated cheese — is unquestionably the star of the dairy.

The Agour Ossau-Iraty is one of only two AOC-approved sheep’s milk cheeses in France. Its name reflects its geographical location: it was originally produced in the Ossau Valley in Béarn and the Irati Forest in Basque Country. This cheese is made from a blend of milk from three types of mountain sheep, and Agour sells the cheese in three age groups: four-month, six-month and 10-to-12-month. My favorite of these three was the six-month-aged version. It had enough ageing to calm down the barnyard taste of young sheep’s milk cheese, but still retained a nice bit of moisture and oil content that is sometimes missing from long-aged sheep cheeses. The dairy says what makes their Ossau special is that each and every six-pound wheel is made from milk that is less than 24 hours old. Exceedingly fresh milk imparts nuanced flavors in the cheese that mingle well with the notable “sheepy” qualities.

After the tasting, I was fortunate enough to take a wedge of this delicious cheese home. Since then I’ve served it on a cheese plate with arctic rose nectarine jam and fresh, rustic, dark-baked bread; shaved into lightly scrambled eggs; and paired with cured salami and mustard. But my favorite serving method? Slightly warmed on my mini Raclette machine, heated until the thin strips I sliced were translucent and had a mouthwatering consistency. In this context all the animal and herbal flavors shined, and I could have eaten a pound of Ossau! Needless to say, if you ever get a chance to try this cheese, I’d highly recommend it.

You can follow Raymond's cheese adventures on Facebook, Twitter, and his website. Additional reporting by Madeleine James. 

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