Pé Descaous, an Ossau-Iraty Cheesemaker in the Béarn.
On our way to Bayonne, while visiting the Jurançon Wine region, we were lucky to find a small sign in the middle of nowhere saying “Ossau-Iraty Farm”.
We decided to turn right and check the place out! When we arrived, we were welcomed by three dogs staring at us and barking, we had to stop in the slope not to run them over! After a few (long) minutes, a woman came over to us and asked us what we were doing here. We spoke about the sign we had seen. The atmosphere was a little special but we soon understood why: the owner, Françoise Perret explained it was their last week working after more than 30 years; they had just sold their flock of sheep to a younger farmer starting his own business. Her husband Alain came over to us and offered to show us around.
He brought us to the cheese maturation room where we could smell all these years of cheese making. I’d say you have to love cheese to like this smell, a mix of ammonium and mold, I loved it! So, we stayed there for an hour going through the cheese-making process.
Pé Descaous (“Naked Foot” in the local Bearn dialect, a reference to the shape of a bear’s footprints) is not only an Ossau-Iraty cheese, Alain and his wife are in favor of the reintroduction of bears in the area, wanting the local shepherds to live in harmony with them again instead of shooting them. A vision that is quite unusual in the area…
Just so that you know what we are talking about… Ossau- Iraty is one of the many French cheeses with PDO status (Protected Designation of Origin), and it is since 1980. It’s a semi-hard cheese, it belongs to the Uncooked Pressed Cheese Family, it can be produced in a certain delimited area within the Bearn Region and the neighboring Basque country. It comes as a wheel which can be of two sizes: 2-3kgs or 4-5kgs. The millk has to be from 3 breeds of ewes only: “ Basco- Béarnaise” , “Red-Faced Manech” & “Black-Faced Manech”. They have to be fed in majority with fresh grass from the fields, although some cereals can be given but never GMO! The grass and cereals have to be again in majority from the area within the PDO. Let’s go through the production steps briefly:
1- Curdling: the milk is heated at 30°C, the rennet is added; the milk coagulates and turns into a curd.
2- The curd is cut.
3- The curd is brewed and heated up to 40°C.
4- The curd is put into molds and pressed: the cheese is born!
5- Each individual cheese is identified with a stamp (a sheep’s head looking straight enclosing the letter F for Farmers Cheeses or a sheep’s head in profile with no letter for those made on behalf of a cheese seller)
6- Each cheese is salted (rubbed with salt for one day per kg).
7- Finally, starts the “affinage” (ageing process) for at least 80 days for the 2-3kg cheese and 120 days for the 4-5kg. If you want to learn more about cheese process, click here
Sommeliers Tips Since we are big fans of local pairings, I would advise a dry Jurancon if you want to drink white. The natural saltiness of the cheese calls for a floral, thirst-quenching white. Based on a blend of local indigenous grapes (mostly Petit Manseng, Gros Manseng, Courbu & Camaralet), it will definitely bring some excitement around the table! If you are a red wine person, then the close-by Irouléguy, from the Basque country, should bring nice rustic tannins from Tannat, Cabernet Sauvignon & Cabernet Franc, ideal with the fat content in the cheese. Natural aromas of red berries and light peppery notes go perfectly well with it too! If you can’t find it, any good Cabernet-based red or smooth earthy Malbec should do!
If you want to more information, I advise to go directly on the PDO’s website, it’s in French but I am sure you can translate it http://www.ossau-iraty.fr