Ossau-Iraty (oh-sow ee-RAH-tee) is a traditional shepherd's semi-pressed raw sheep milk cheese. It is the most famous cheese from the Basque region of France and one of only two AOC (appellation d'origine controlee) sheep cheeses in France with the other being Roquefort. With the formation of the European Union, Ossau-Iraty received its PDO (protected designation of origin) further ensuring that the quality of the cheese will be maintained through its traditional methods of production including the sourcing of milk. "Istara" is further proprietary branding of the cheese but its meaning is lost on me.
The aroma of Ossau-Iraty is distinct and indelibly reflects its ewe's milk origins. The cheese taste is nutty, sweet, and herbaceous with complex delicate flavors of hazelnut, figs, and olives. The natural orange-brown rind is edible and actually adds to the cheese's complexity while contrasting in color with the ivory white interior. The texture of the cheese is somewhat oily. Ossau-Iraty fits well into a cheese tray format but also complements fruits, jams, and honey. Wine affinities include light reds and whites in general and, of course, the wines of the Basque region in particular.
Ossau-Iraty is the product of Manech and Basco-Bearnaise ewes grazing in steep mountain pastures in the 20% of the Basque country that lies in France. Ossau is a valley in Bearn which is in Gascony outside of the Basque region. Iraty refers to the Iraty Beech Forest within the northern or French Basque country. Both places lie in the Pyranees-Atlantique department which was created after the French revolution. Prior to that, the region, whether French or Spanish at the time, was at least somewhat autonomous for centuries.
Last Friday at our weekly tasting we opened a bottle of Domaine Saint-Lannes Gascogne white which may have been a nice pairing with Ossau-Iraty. This week on Thursday from 5 to 7pm, Gail Avera of Atlanta Beverage joins us with three Spanish whites, a Rioja reserve red, and two domestic red blends. Want to bet the Ossau-Iraty gets sampled out with some of those? Please join us.