Mountain sheep farmers use old traditional recipes that have been passed down from family to family to make their Brebis. Much like wine there are many different tastes and flavours depending on where the sheep have been grazing, what time of year it is and how much the shepherd has aged it. The resulting intensities, textures and flavours can be dramatically different.
The majority of these cheeses use unpasteurized milk, are uncooked and are made through pressing into a mould. The rind is natural washed and apart from the more popular hard yet creamy style there is also a blue version. In Pays Basque the addition of Piment d’Espellette, a locally grown sweet pepper, is common.
There are only two sheep's milk cheeses with AOC (a set of controls to guarantee quality) status in France. One is Roquefort and the other a Brebis called Ossau-Iraty.
To show the patience and passion the farmers have in making their cheese here are some of the requirements they have to meet to get AOC status:
1. The Brebis must be made with milk produced in the Bearn and Pays Basque regions.
2. The milk can come only from 3 local breeds of sheep - Manech Tête Noire, la Manech Tête rousse et la Basco-Béarnaise. The healthiest looking sheep I have ever seen BTW!
3. The sheep can only be fed on pastures, eat local fodder and cereal without additives. The result is lower production of better quality. Hence good looking sheep!
4. Ewes “rest" between late summer and late autumn. Depending on the herds, the milking period may last only six months (January to June), and a maximum of 9 months (December to August). Happy, good looking sheep!
5. Traditional methods must be respected. The method is to curdle milk with rennet and starter, cut and stir the curd then put the cheese into moulds of a specific size (height and diameter) by pressing and salting. The formats are "regulated" because they account for much of the taste and texture of the cheese at the end of ripening.
6. Ageing for a minimum of 80 days to 120 days for a smooth texture. It takes at least 2½ months of maturing Ossau-Iraty 2-3 Kg and 4 months for 4-5 kg. 6-8 months of ripening is even better.
If one or more of the above are not met then the product cannot be called AOC Brebis but simply Fromage de Brebis, which is a category that most producers around here fall under. To be honest I like the AOC cheese but there are many, many good, if not better, cheeses out there that fall under this category.