We were in San Sebastian, in the beautiful gourmet shop called Don Serapio, where we had been sent by another amazing producer of meat called Txogitxu - but this is another story. The guy at the counter got us to try a stunning Idiazabal cheese aged for more than a year, they had named it Reserva. We liked it so much we bought a piece of it. By the time we arrived at the cashier, we realized that we didn’t even know the name of the producer and this cheese was so good we couldn’t leave without knowing! We ran back to the staff and asked for the name and here's what he showed us!
Back in our van, we googled the name "Martin Txiki". We were quite lucky they were on our way to La Rioja, so we gave them a call and they told us they weren't normally open for visitors but they said they'd be happy to receive us at 3pm! We enjoyed a quick tapas-style lunch on the front seat: a piece of bread, a few slices of the beautiful Txogitxu Vaca Jamon and Idiazabal cheese and we hit the road!
We arrived at Tolosa within twenty minutes, but for the last 2 kilometers the GPS was showing a 10 minutes’ drive! He took us a few secs to understand that we had to go up the mountain; the road was steep and with many turns. After seven minutes, the van was giving all the signs it would die soon. The motor temperature was almost in the red; on my right was a beautiful view to the city 200 meters below and some sheep staring at us, on Max's left were more rocks leading to the next level up. We finally arrived in front of a pretty stone house; Tere & Pedro came to us. After a quick chat they took us into the building to show us the cheese process.
Just so that you know what we are talking about…
Idiazabal is one of the many Spanish cheeses with a “Denominación de Origen” since 1986, translated at the European level as a PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) in 1996.
It’s a semi- hard cheese, it belongs to the Uncooked & Pressed Cheese family and it can be produced in a certain delimited area within the Navarra & Basque country. It comes as a wheel, which can be between 1 and 3.5kg. The milk has to be raw from 2 indigenous breeds of sheep only: Latxa and Carranzana.
Let’s go through the production steps briefly with Tere
1. Curdling: the milk is heated to 30°C, in our case, the natural lamb rennet is added, coagulating the milk and turning it into a curd.
2. The curd is cut and with a filtering screen, it is separated from the remaining whey.
3. The curd is brewed and heated up to 38°C.
4. The curd is put into molds and pressed: the cheese is born!
5. Each cheese is salted in a brine (where it stays for one day per kg).
6. A numbered label certifying that PDO regulations have been respected (issued by the Regulating Body) is put on each cheese
7. Finally, the “affinage” (ageing process) starts for at least 60 days.
After 60 days only, the cheese can already be sold as "Idiazabal". However, it can be aged for a longer period of time and sold with various ageing terms (i.e "Reserva" at the Don Serapio shop) or it can be smoked with different types of wood (such as beech-tree, birch-tree, cherry tree or white pine), in our case they were using beech wood.
We spent a great moment with them & learnt a lot of things. Tere & Pedro are doing this job with love, they respect their sheep, the product and the consumer at the end…
Idiazabal is a hard cheese that gains a certain crunchy saltiness with ageing. Younger versions can be had with lighter styles of reds such as a good Pinot Noir, packed with aromas of Morello cherry and light peppery finish. To remain Spanish, a Rioja Crianza or a Ribera del Duero Joven would have fantastic jammy aromas and red berried notes to pair with it.
Aged versions, with their almost "Parmesan-like" crunchy saltiness, would benefit from more tannic reds, nearby Navarra Cabernets or Reserva level Ribera del Duero would be a perfect match. If you are celebrating a special occasion, a good Priorat from Catalunya would take you to another dimension.
Regarding the smoked versions, I have a personal thing for minerally whites and smokey aromas. I would recommend a white Entre-Deux-Mers from Bordeaux or even a good Bergerac for inexpensive choices. Slightly more pricey options would be a good white Graves or Pessac-Léognan. To remain Spanish, some top cuvée whites from the Xarel-lo grape in the Pénédes would be incredible, with rich buttery texture and flinty minerality (try the Bodega Pares Balta wines like Calcari or Electio).