When I was a wee little girl I was sent to colonies de vacances (the French equivalent of summer camp, except it can be at any season) once or twice a year during school breaks. Both my parents worked and us kids had way more vacations than they did, so partir en colo was a good way for us to breathe fresh air and make new friends instead of staying in the city. To be truthful I didn’t like it that much — I was always a bit of an individualist and I hated being cattled around with a bunch of other kids. To make matters worse, spinach was often on the menu and there was a skin on the milk they served for breakfast <shudder>.

But one thing I remember very fondly was that when the colonie was somewhere in the mountains, we were usually given the opportunity to visit the local cheesemaker. While most of the other kids chose to go kayaking instead, or mountain-climbing or some such horrendous activity, I would always opt for the cheese, fascinated as I was by the huge vats of freshly squeezed milk, the gigantic curd combs, the endless rows of tommes de Savoie biding their time on wooden shelves in the cool cellar, and the overall smell and magic of the process.

I have never lost this sense of wonder, and artisanal cheesemakers remain a must-visit wherever I go. Being in the Pays Basque with Maxence, we simply could not miss visiting a farm that produced Ossau-Iraty, a traditional sheep‘s milk cheese with intensely aromatic and not too sharp flavors, and a smooth but slightly brittle texture. It is delightful on its own (as most pressed cheeses, it doesn’t really need bread at all), but the traditional companion is black cherry jam, preferably from the nearby village of Itxassou. Cheese historians (what a marvellous métier) tell us that Ossau-Iraty can be traced back to over 2,000 years ago, and it was awarded an AOC in 1980: this defines the specific and exclusive area in which it can be produced and given the appellation (between the Ossau valley and the Iraty forest), as well as a strict set of rules to follow during the production and aging of the cheese.

The farm that we visited (right after hitting the cool prehistoric caves of Isturitz and Oxocelhaya) was La Fromagerie Agerria in Saint-Martin d’Arberoue. The owners are a young couple who only recently started producing Ossau-Iraty in the family farm — they used to force-feed ducks and produce sheep’s milk for an industrial client, but it was too much work for too little gratification. When they started out, instead of trying to distribute their cheese through stores and markets, they decided they would stick to vente directe, selling exclusively to visitors, attracted by a few well placed signs on the road and the offer of a free tour (and free tasting).

The tour, conducted by both owners in turn, was fun and very instructive: it took us from the stables to the milking room to the production room (seen through a glass window for obvious hygiene reasons) and finally the aging cellar, while we were told about the traceability of the sheep’s diet, their reproduction cycles, the actual cheesemaking process, and the daily care with which the precious rounds of cheese are washed with whey, flipped to ensure even aging, and sung lullabies to, for at least three to four months.

As promised, the tour ended with a little tasting, and we swiftly bought a whole round to take home with us (the number that’s written on it is the date of production — June 10th in our case). Yes, I am well aware that this is two kilos of cheese, but since we were travelling it would really keep much better whole, you see?

And if you are in the area, I highly recommend eating at a fabulous restaurant called Manechenea: a great hare terrine, locally raised trout with green peppercorns, roasted palombe (woodpigeon I am told) with excellent fries, and a picture-perfect gâteau basque (see pictures on the moblog). And if after that you need to lie down (I won’t blame you), book a room at the great chambre d’hôte (a B&B if you will) nearby, the Maison Jauregia — a beautiful house from the 16th century with a monumental oakwood staircase, large welcoming rooms (the same can be said about the bathtubs), and extremely kind owners.

Fromagerie Agerria
64640 St-Martin d’Arberoue
05 59 29 45 39

Quartier Urdos
64430 Saint Etienne de Baïgorry
05 59 37 41 68

Maison Jauregia
Quartier Urdos
64430 Saint Etienne de Baïgorry
05 59 37 49 72

  • Going to the cheesemaker definitely sounds more exciting than kayaking! I too disliked summer camp, and am thinking that it would have been much better had they offered up some cheese-themed activities rather than swimming in a freezing lake at 6:30 in the morning.

  • Alisa

    The cheesemaking process will get me everytime too. Did you go through one of the cave tours, or just pass by? We did one and it was an amazing experience.

  • Did you happen to see any of the ancient cave paintings, or are they not in that area?

  • Monica

    You’re right, it travels much better whole. :-) My summer-camp nightmarish meal memory was boiled-to-death yams, hot dogs floating in catsup, and powdered milk that tasted no better than the styrofoam cups used for drinking. *shudders also*

  • john

    I read long ago that the people in St-Étienne-de-Baïgorry catch les palombes by stretching nets across the narrow canyons between hillsides; the pigeons fly into the nets and there you are. Any truth to this?

  • Oh, I just thought of another camp horror for me, and this one is food related: my first day of sleepaway camp, we were given assigned tables for dinner, and as soon as we sat down, the counselor who was at our table started commanding me to pour drinks and pass the food, and to top it off, she kept on calling me “Foot,” as in “Foot, pour the lemonade!” No one had told me that it was camp tradition that the person sitting at the foot of the table was supposed to help out serving. I don’t think I had even ever heard of a foot (as in the opposite of the head) of the table before. It took me a few days of camp to catch on to where my new (and hated) nightly nickname was coming from.

  • Sounds heavenly, Clotilde, right down to that gateau Basque! I first tasted Ossau-Iraty when I worked in the cheese department of a Whole Foods Market a few years ago, and it’s been a favorite ever since. I can only imagine, though, how much better it must taste in its actual country–or on its actual farm–of origin! I can well understand why a girl might need a whole wheel of the stuff!

  • I love visiting any kind of culinary artisan. What they all have in common, whether they make cheese, wine, bread, chocolate or whatever, is an incredible passion for their craft. It’s always so rewarding to see, isn’t it? I appreciated your pictures and explanation of the Ossau-Iraty cheesemaking process as it’s one of my favorites. What I really want, though, is to sample that gateau Basque!

  • Mmmmmmmmmmmmmh…! It looks like the Portuguese mountain cheeses!

  • Alisa – Yes, we took a tour of those caves! It was great, especially the stalactic organs. If you’re into caves (as I am) I recommend the Gouffre de Padirac in the Périgord, that offers a memorable ride on a subterranean river at 103 meters below the earth.

    Gladys – There are a few carvings on the walls of those caves, but nothing like the famous Grotte de Lascaux (in the Périgord also), which is sadly closed to the public now (to protect the rupestrian paintings).

    Kate and Monica – Glad to hear I’m not the only one who found summer camps a character-building experience! :)

    John – I had no idea how they caught palombes, but a very short research (http://www.saveursdumonde.net/ency_6/pigeon/palombe.htm ) shows you’re right: that explains why there was (thankfully) no bullet in my bird!

  • Alisa

    We saw the stalactite organs too! Next time I’m there will definitely go to Gouffre de Padirac in the Périgord.

    My cousins-in-law have secret spots where they catch palombes a few times a year, bring them back to Les Aldudes and have a feast with everyone who turns up. It is about much more than just the eating; the process, from planning the “hunt” to the finish is wonderful.

  • Maïa

    Moi y’a une colo dont j’ai un bon souvenir. Ca s’appelait “l’Epine”, c’était en en Vendée, et le soir on mangeait des cookies dans la chambre en lisant les petit Nicolas…tu te rappelles?

  • idratherbecookin

    Hi Clotilde! I have loved reading the posts about your travels in the south-west of France. Like you, I am very fond of cheese too. More recently I have been munching on some Saga and my favorite 4 year aged dry Gouda that I can only seem to find at Dean and Deluca (4 hours away). Anyhow, a few months ago I found a Staub at a discount store and purchased it because it has been so hard to find over the popularized Le Creuset. I have fallen in love with new dishes I have concocted in the La Coccote. I would love to read about what dishes you have made in your beutaful grey La Coccotte. Thank you so much for the wonderful articles you post and I cannot wait to purchase your cookbook.

  • Liza

    Entre la peau flottant à la surface du lait (je tressaille aussi rien que d’y songer) et le chocolat de chez Cazenave, tu as l’art d’évoquer mes madeleines de Proust ( pour rester dans l’univers des papilles). Je me souviens surtout du chocolat chaud, que ma mère m’emmenait boire chaque fois que nous allions faire des courses à Bayonne. Nous passions les vacances chez mes grands-parents à Biarritz, et aller à Bayonne, c’était la grande sortie de la semaine, qui commençait toujours par un passage aux “Dames de France”(maintenant tristement Galeries Lafayette), et s’achevait chez Cazenave. Je peux encore sentir les effluves de cacao s’élevant de nos tasses fumantes. Mmmm…
    Bon, contrairement à ce que ce message pourrait laisser croire, j’ai seulement 27 ans et ces souvenirs ne sont pas si lointains !
    Pour le gâteau basque, le meilleur fut longtemps celui du Moulin de Bassilour, mais les propriétaires ont changé il y a une dizaine d’annés et la qualité du gâteau aussi…
    Merci pour ton blog !

  • s

    A young cheesemaker couple – sounds like a dream job! I can just imagine the gorgeous smells. Currently eating up my ration of well-travelled Swiss Bergbumenklase and Gruyere that I brought back from London (they travel well in suitcases!)

  • My Clotilde, how lovely. The pairing with black cherry jam sounds utterly tempting. Do you have any plans for this impressive round upon your return home?

  • mmmm….cheese!

    I must say the best meal I had when visiting a friend in Paris was on a rainy November night when we bought armfulls of cheeses in so many tasty varieties I can’t even remember their names any more, a bottle of wine, and some fresh baguettes and proceeded to stuff ourselves silly while sitting picnic style on her living room floor watching a movie, listening to the rain, and being able to see the le tour Eiffel out her 7th floor flat window. It was heaven, and the thing I remember most was that cheese. Oh! It was like eating a piece of heaven!

    Love love love your site, love your writing, and love how much you love food! Keep it up!!

  • Owen

    Tell me, Clotilde or others, has anybody eaten the Portuguese sheep’s milk cheese Serra da Estrela? I had it while travelling earlier this year and cannot find it outside of Portugal. My friend tried it and started crying.

  • I used to have this cheese on our cheeseplate at Bouchon (Napa, Ca.) One day I came in and there was a note from a line cook,

    “Shuna, we’ve run out of your favorite cheese, Oh So Erotic.”

    {Owen– I don’t know where you are but I have had that cheese in Northern California. Cheeseworks West is an exclusive importer of Spanish & Portuguese cheeses.}

  • Neil

    Clotilde, I was unable to find Ossau-Iraty here, but my cheese seller, Alyce, had a Brebis, which she said is roughly the same. Finally got over to her shop to get some last evening. It is wonderful. I can see keeping it on the rotation list of cheese I like to keep in the house.

    Thanks for introducing it to me.

  • magillicuddy

    Ah Summer camp, as a working mom with no family in France, my boys unfortunately are often at “colonie” and they hate it… no grandparents around to watch them… but THAT cheese is my favorite cheese in France ! I didn’t know you were supposed to eat it with jam so I will try that…

  • vince

    We discovered Ossau Iraty at Whole Foods in Atl a few months ago. Loved it. Had lunch at Taillevent last week. It’s the cheese (with cherry preserves) on the priciest degustation menu!

  • I have just discovered Ossau Iraty cheese and think it so good that I want to go and live in the area of production. The cheese is subtle, creamy and sublime – one of the best. Where did I find it? In my local supermarket in Edinburgh. Incroyable!

    What an interesting website. It makes me want to rush back over to France. Bravo.

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