– three things I love to do. Come with!
This photo collection shows the entire process- traditional, arduous, and artisan- to make Idiazabal cheese.
Below: First the sheep are brought in from pasture and held in the corral.
The sheep are then guided into the milking parlor where they take their places at the feeding trough.
The feeding trough moves on wheels, and thus the sheep shimmy back to the semi-automated milking devices. Tere and Elisha stand on the lowered milking parlor floor, cleaning udders before attaching the milking devices.
Below, Elisha attaches the device by hand. This moment is also critical because it allows the farmer to keep an eye on the health of his sheep. The nipples are checked for cleanliness, infection and sores. If there’s any call for concern, the sheep is not milked.
Next, Pedro checks the udders before removing the milking device, making sure to get the highest yield of milk possible and to double-check health indicators against infection.
Gravity pulls the milk down to this isolated sterile holding tank on the milking parlor floor. From here, it’s eventually pumped to the cheese room.
After milking, the sheep file out of the milking parlor and back into a separate corral, where they await their veterinarian-balanced feed for optimum health. This completes the milking process.
After milking, Tere changes clothes and heads to the cheese room. To begin the curdling process, she adds a natural ferment and rennet and then briefly heats the milk. It will sit for one hour to coagulate.
After waiting one hour, Tere cuts the curd with a large square comb, making hundreds of small cubes.
This curd-cutting process requires arm and back strength, as the curds are cut horizontally and vertically for nearly fifteen minutes. Elisha tries his hand at Tere’s daily work-out.
Then the curds are heated again and stirred with a steel paddle to prevent large clumps from forming. I am so grateful for Tere’s patience and willingness to share with us. (You can see from the photo below that I am quite the rookie.)
Using a perforated sheet, Tere then coaxes the solids into two-thirds of the tank, separating out the whey (water and excess liquid).
She drains the whey off the solids, straining with a small colander to catch any stray cheese bits. The whey is often shared with neighbors to make cuajada or requeson, a cottage-cheese-like dessert.
Two metal plaques are placed on top of the solids, weighed down with two buckets of water to further squeeze out whey.
Now Tere cuts the compacted solids into cubes roughly the size of the final cheese mold.
The wobbly blocks of curds are placed in plastic molds and trimmed to fit. If we were to stop here, we’d have sheep’s milk cottage cheese.
The now loosely-molded rounds of cheese are flipped upside down into another mold, this one lined with cheesecloth.
Wrapped snugly in the mold with cheesecloth, the cheese is now topped with a special lid so that it can be pressed.
The cheeses are then stacked vertically in a press to remove all excess water.
After an initial pressing, the cheeses are removed one by one and stamped with the casein numerical verification for the Denominacion de Origen Idiazabal. If you buy a cheese that seems not up to Idiazabal standards, you can track the producers by this code.
Then the cheeses are returned to the presses. Tere will periodically lower the presses throughout the afternoon to squeeze out all excess moisture.
After a full afternoon in the presses, the cheeses head to the salmuera, the brine bath below on the left. They will stay there for 12 hours, curing in a salt solution that both flavors and reduces microbial activity. The next morning, Tere removes the cheeses from the brine and places them on the racks to the right to dry.
From the brining room, Tere brings the cheeses to large walk-in refrigerators filled with racks. Each shelf is dated and counted by numbers of rounds of cheese- a good day is somewhere around twenty to twenty-five rounds. They will age in this temperature- and humidity-controlled refrigerator for three months. In that time, some will develop a natural mold, which is removed with a brush.
Below we see the final product, beautiful rounds of hay-golden Idiazabal. Each cheese here weighs one kilo; Tere and Pedro do a brisk business between restaurants, gourmet markets and locals who walk right up to their caserio.
The final product in its traditional Basque glory: Idiazabal cheese with dulce de manzana (an apple membrillo paste) and walnuts. This ridiculously satisfying dessert is typical in cider houses, restaurants and Basque home kitchens. It’s the perfect mix of salty, sweet, nutty, and creamy tastes. A dessert that highlights Idiazabal is also the perfect end to the long process of cheese making.
Some people were incredulous when Elisha and I discussed our week at Martin Txiki, saying that “no one makes cheese by hand anymore.” Tere and Pedro do, and they are pretty darn good at it.
An enormous thank you to Tere, Pedro and their son Aitor for opening their home and sharing their craft. Eskerrik asko!