idiazabalIdiazábal (Queso Idiazábal La Vasco Navarra) is a hard pressed Basque cheese made in the Basque Country and Navarre in north central Spain. It achieved its denominación de origen (D.O. - Spanish version of French appellations) in 1987. The D.O. requires the use of unpasteurized milk primarily from the Laxta breed of sheep although some areas may use Carranzana sheep. The D.O. requires curdling the milk with natural lamb rennet and permits the external smoking of the cheese.

Traditionally farmers would move their sheep to higher pastures in the Pyrenees to graze them on the blossoming new grass during spring and summer. They would make cheese from the milk and hang it in the rafters of their shepherd's cottages to age for at least two months. The curing cheese would pick up smoke from the cottages' chimney-less fireplaces. In autumn, the shepherds would come down from the mountains with their sheep and their cheese.

Idiazábal has a yellow and light brown striped rind marked by the wood molds in which the cheese drained. The paste is spainlight straw yellow near the rind and lightens to medium cream color towards the middle. It springs back when pressed and you can almost roll a small piece into a ball before it crumbles. It smells a trace tart with some fruit, nuts and the aroma of my Aran Island hand woven wool sweater when it gets wet. There are a few small pin head sized eyes in the paste. It tastes nutty and buttery with a a little grass and a trace of lamb, a hint of smoke and a light touch of tart and sweet.

I have had Idiazábal in the past with Basque Cider (Gurutzeta Sagardotegia Sagardoa Basque Cider) and Asturian cider (Sidra de Asturias de Mayador Bodegas Mayador Natural Cider) and the earthiness and funk of the ciders brings out similar flavors in the cheese and the cheese accents the ciders' apple flavors and it is a match made in heaven. I have also had it with Oscar blues Old Chub Scotch ale and Russian River Pliny the Elder. The maltiness of the Chub works very well and the Pliny works but not quite as well as the ciders or the Chub.

Today I am drinking a bottle of Sap House Meadery In Your Head, a 12% alcohol by volume mead made with cranberries. The Basques will often eat Idiazábal with quince jam and the mead demonstrates why. The mead has just a hint of honey sweetness balanced by cranberry tartness and finished with a light astringent note from the cranberry's tannins. The mead tartness and tannins balance the nutty butteryness of the cheese and brings out more earthiness, grass and some mushroom notes. It is an elegant pairing worth repeating.


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