With all the Michelin stars and alta cocina fuss about Basque Country, it might surprise you to know that the most famous name from Basque gastronomy isn't a chef.
It's a cheese.
After Manchego, it's definitely the most recognized cheese name out of Spain. It's a unpasteurized sheeps' milk cheese, made from Latxa and Carranza breeds only. Usually, that is, if you don't count the trampa that often occurs with D.O. and A.O.C. products. Popularity goes up, demand goes up, and reliability typically goes down, as evinced by the whispered stories of falsified labels, truckfuls of milk from who-knows-where dumped in with the pure latxa milk, and other horror stories.
For a while, problems like this plagued Idiazabal, making it the black sheep of the local cheeses.
Sorry. Had to do it.
I recently visited the producers at what is arguably one of the best Idiazabal operations, Quesos Aranburu. They've won countless awards for their cheese, and once you taste it, it's not hard to see why. It's flawless. They showed us around the (tiny) creamery, beginning with the machine where the milk is curdled with half-natural, half-chemical rennet.
From there, it goes on to be drained, pressed in molds and brined before it is aged in their cooler for at least two months.
Then there is the traditional turning of the curing cheeses, still done by hand, and then the optional smoking of the cheeses. Although all Idiazabal cheese has smoky notes, not all of it is smoked. In fact, you'd be hard pressed to find many from the Goierri region (where Idiazabal is located, also known as paradise and famed for cities such as Ataun) that prefer the smoked version, much of which is sold and exported to madrileños and americans.
We had a tasting of all their award-winning cheeses, from the youngest unsmoked, to the gazta gaztea, or "old cheese". This is mixed with cream to form a sort of spreadable, piquant paste that is strong and rich.
It's a pleasure and a luxury to be able to see where and how your cheese is made. One only made sweeter by the full sampling at the end and the half-wheel of cheese thrust into my arms by our host. Now where'd I put my membrillo y nueces?