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Fromage de Brebis - Pyrenees

Fromage de Brebis - Pyrenees

Fromage de Brebis - Pyrenees

Brebis Cheese

As a self confessed “cheese addict” I was like a kid in a candy shop when I first moved to France. 

I have since downgraded the “addict” bit to “in moderation addict” due to the possibility of hardening arteries and a shortened life span. 


Does this mean that I no longer eat cheese? Good God no!  I just don’t eat as much of it but as there are so many cheeses to try I’m doing my best for King and country by working my way through them.


Here is one of my favourite French cheeses, and hopefully, this bit of info may fuel your desire to try it.

Brebis Piment

 

Brebis is French for sheep, more specifically Ewe, the female version. Not Mouton, also sheep, or Agneau which is lamb.

 

Brebis is a type of cheese traditionally made from Ewe’s milk. It is widely made throughout France and has many faces from soft, mild and creamy to hard, crumbly and pungent.


“Eww! “ I had a guest turn her nose up at the thought of sheep’s milk cheese. That all changed when, after a whole evening of coaxing, I finally got her to try it.

 

For this article I will be talking specifically about Brebis from the Pyrenees, often thought to be the best of the lot, not that I am prejudiced but it is REALLY good!

 

Around these parts, Brebis is simply known as Brebis, Brebis Pur (100% ewe’s milk), Brebis Mixte (a mix of milks), Brebis de Chevre (goats milk), or Vache (cow’s milk). The locals know where they like to buy their Brebis as the taste can be incredibly different from village to village, mountain to mountain and valley to valley. It can be a political statement as to where one buys one’s Brebis!

 

It’s history comes from the Pays Basque and Bearn regions of the Pyrenees which range from the South Western Atlantic (Biarritz and south) coastline and pretty much follows the Spanish Border along the mountains until just south of Pau in the Pyrenees Atlantiques. This is just 40min away from where I live.

Brebis sheep

 

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.

Yummy Brebis

 

However there are regulations that have to be met in order for farmers to sell their cheese. It’s not a total free-for-all make your milk in the back garden set up (although there probably is a bit!).


1. Milk cannot be taken until 20 days after lambing and the milk must have rennet added within 2 days. 

2. The word Montagne can only be used of the ewes have been grazing in mountain pastures between May 10 and September 15. 

Fromage de Brebis can be found everywhere in and around the Pyrenees. There’s often a Beret topped farmer sitting at his mountain hut lopping off wedges of Brebis for tourists to buy or a van parked at the side of the road with wheels of different aged Brebis to try and then buy. Most, if not all, will slice off a sample or two, which is worth it as there are Brebis’ for all tastes. 

 

It’s not the cheapest cheese out there by any means but if you are looking for an authentic, wonderfully flavoured and unique treat then try it. You can almost taste the history.

 

Brebis is almost always simply accompanied with cherry “confit” (jam) or fruits of the season, blackberries, and cherries. Folk around here aren’t much into decoration, a slice of cheese and spoonful of confit may be all you get but the taste will be out of this world so who cares what it looks like.

 

Remember, if you are able to try before you buy, do it. 

 

I once bought a large lump of blue Brebis from a market vendor without trying and when I got home and unwrapped it was overcome by the stench of, let’s just say, farmy animals. Actually it was so pungent that even I, who loves the stinky cheeses, could not even cook with it let alone eat it. Lesson learnt!

Drink This: 

10 year old Tawny Port

Tawny Port
Food 2017: 

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