Capitalizing On Foods From The Basque Region

These specialty items have something to offer today’s delis

Hannah Howard
Lee Smith

Specialty sections in delis can benefit from The Basque region. This area includes a number of areas in France, close to its border with Spain. Because this area has its own microclimate with the sea and the mountains, it attracts a great deal of rain throughout the year.

This is good news, as the lush landscape, full of flowers, plants and green grass lend well to producing some of the finest meats and cheeses available.

Two Traditions Merged

Despite the fact the number of entries into the American Cheese Society (ACS) competition that were made exclusively from sheep’s milk increased 40 percent from 2010 to 2016, according to the New York Times, and also these cheeses remain popular in the United States, these varieties have been underrepresented in today’s delis.

Said to be one of the first cheeses ever made, Ossau Iraty has increased in popularity due to an influx of sheep’s milk cheese in the United States, especially aged cheeses.

Ossau Iraty is produced in two regions in the southwest of France along the Spanish border — in the Northern Basque Country’s Irati Forest and in Bearn’s neighboring Ossau Valley. 


Ossau Iraty received AOC status in 1980, making it only one of two sheep’s milk cheeses with this status — the other is Roquefort. Ossau Iraty was granted European PDO status in 1996.

This type is a single cheese that melds tradition from two neighboring but distinct places. The Basque-type cheese from the Irati Forest is called Ardi Gasna, which means “sheep’s cheese” in Basque. These wheels tend to be smaller; they weigh in at about 5 pounds. The unctuous sheep’s milk curds are warmed and drained until very dry in the vat before being pressed into wheels. These cheeses tend to be firmer and drier than their Ossau Valley counterparts. There’s also an Irati Forest practice of aging cheeses near the chimney for a smoky flavor. This is the tradition from which the cheese Idiazabal is born.

Nearby in the Ossau Valley, the wheels tend to be twice as big, about 10 pounds. These cheeses have a more complex process of being aged — they are left to mature in humid caves, sometimes underground, where they are brushed with salted water. 

The Ossau-Iraty in the United States is usually a fusion of these two customs. The wheels come in two sizes. The small one has a diameter of about 8 inches and weighs between 4.5 and 6.5 pounds. The larger size has a diameter about 10 inches and weighs about 9 to 11 pounds. The cheese is made with raw milk from the local sheep, with bright red and black heads. Wheels must age for 80 to 120 days.

A New Appreciation

Around eight major dairies and co-operatives craft Ossau Iraty. They get their milk supply from 2,000 small farms located in the region.


Savencia Cheese USA, New Holland, PA, makes Esquirrou Ossau Iraty, a PDO cheese in a 5-pound wheel.

“The name means ‘bell’ in French, signifying a bell around a sheep’s neck,” says Sebastien Lehembre, Savencia’s senior brand manager. “Rather than most wheels that are 10 to 15 pounds, this wheel is sliced down smaller to evolve differently.”

Another Savencia cheese from the Basque region is Etorki, which means ‘origin,’ and is a pure ewe’s cheese.

“This is a mild 10-pound cheese that’s pressed,” says Lehembre. “It has a nice texture, as it’s hard and not chewy.”

Both are award-winning cheeses.

Savencia has recently introduced Cayrol, a hard goat’s milk cheese that was unveiled at the San Francisco Fancy Food Show in January this year.

“Milk is collected daily from surrounding farms, and it’s a small production,” says Lehembre. “This mild cheese is aged for three months. The outside is orange and inside is very white and characteristic of goat’s milk.”

“There is a misnomer about goat’s milk cheese,” says Lehembre. “Most goats don’t have strong cheese, rather it’s fruity in a citrus way. Ours has a caffeine flavor with a little (hint) of hay.”

In 2011, a 10-month old Ossau Iraty from Fromagerie Agour, a family-owned business in the southwest of France, was named World’s Best Cheese at the World Cheese Awards in Birmingham, England. Five years later in 2016, the cheese won the award again.

Agour was founded in 1981, and it’s the last family-run dairy in Basque country. “We have a strong relationship with our farmers,” says Diane Sauvage, the North American branch director for the company. “We make a cheese that celebrates a strong sense of terroir.” When the late Jean Etxeleku founded the company, his goal was to maintain the rich traditions while innovating to keep up with a changing, growing market. Back then, 15 family farmers combined their milk for Agour’s Ossau Iraty. Today, that number is 130.

The Perfect Bayonne Ham

Also from the Basque, Jambon de Bayonne is considered one of the most exquisite dry-cured hams in the world.

Made for more than 1,000 years, Bayonne ham has a history as rich as the people of the Basque. While salting techniques to preserve meat and seafood probably go back more than a millennium due to the salt water springs and easy access to the ocean, the process of using salt to dry cure legs of pork probably arrived with the Romans.

Bayonne is in the French Basque area of Southwest France straddling the border of Spain. 

While the origins are a bit of mystery, legend has it that Bayonne Ham was created after an extraordinary hunt. One day, Gaston Febus, the Count of Foix, wounded a wild boar, which then ran off. The boar was not discovered until months later in the Salies-de-Bearn salt-water area, perfectly preserved.

More logically, salt curing was well known by then, and it was refined by the Romans who had a long history of curing pork with salt and natural winds. Additional evidence is the similarity of production between the prosciutto of Italy and Bayonne ham of France.

The native pig is an unusual creature and not the best for commercial production. Called the Pie Noir du Pays Basque, it is as its name suggests a piebald black and pink animal. It takes longer to mature and puts on more internal fat, making it the perfect pig for Bayonne ham. Today, the large, white breeds mostly have supplanted the breed. The Pie Noir almost disappeared by the 1980s, but is seeing a slow resurrection, as demand for authenticity and the preservation of original species grows.

Regardless of breed, pigs must not be fed or treated with steroids, fish oils or antibiotics. The piglets must stay with the mother, and all must be allowed to free forage on roots, corn, nuts (usually acorns) and grasses. In addition, they may be offered cereals.

Bayonne ham is an EU Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) product, and strict rules and regulations are necessary for the rearing of the pigs, production and aging of the hams. The controlling body for enforcing regulations is the Consortium du Jambon de France.

Pigs to be used for Bayonne ham must be born and raised in Southwest France. The production of the ham must be done in the Adour Basin, between the Atlantic Ocean and the Pyrenees Mountains.

Part of the beauty of Bayonne ham is its simplicity. There are three ingredients — pork, salt and air. Just as important as the pork is the salt that will transform a raw leg into a dry-cured ham. The salt cures the ham, drawing out the moisture and acting as a preservative.

The salt required to be used in the salting and curing process is Salies-de-Bearn. It is a treasure found under the Pyrenees Mountains that rises to the surface through natural waters and salt springs.

Aged for a minimum of nine months, Jambon-de-Bayonne is produced using traditional methods. It is believed that nothing is a secret when you trust in a product that has a respect for tradition. Each step plays an essential part in curing the perfect ham.

Producers may only use legs from authorized slaughterhouses, and they must be transformed within seven days.

The salting is done in winter-style conditions. The fresh hams are rubbed with salt exclusively from Salies-de-Bearn. They are then covered in a thick layer of salt and placed in the salting room.

The hams are hung to rest at low temperatures, where the environment is kept artificially winter-like, using modern techniques. They will stay there to begin to dry.

After a period of resting, the hams will be hung from the rafters where the long process of maturing begins.

After a period, the process called “Panage” is done to slow down the aging process. A mixture of pig fat, rice flour and pepper is applied to the exposed part of the ham. This will allow for a gentler aging and the curing of flavors.

While the ham is maturing, it is developing its mild and refined flavors. The hams must be aged for at least nine months, but depending on the size of the ham, it may take as long as 12 months. Hams can be aged up to 22 months, but are generally preferred younger.

The final step is the testing period, when independent and highly-qualified experts will assess the quality of the ham. After passing rigorous quality control steps, the ham will be branded with the Lauburu Cross, the Bayonne seal. DB

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