Cheese tourism: Ossau-Iraty
In this new monthly column, we'll transport you to the places your favourite cheeses are produced. You can buy the cheese from us - but we'll let you handle the travel details if you're inspired to go!
Today, we’re looking at Ossau-Iraty, a semi-hard, nutty-flavoured sheep’s milk cheese made in the French Basque Region, in the southwestern corner of France. The cheese is named for the two districts in which it’s made – the Ossau Valley and the Iraty Forest.
Ossau-Iraty is made from unpasteurized sheep’s milk from one of only two breeds of ewes, Basco-Bearnaise and Manech, and is aged at least six months. If you’re sampling it from a cheese platter, serve it with a Bordeaux, Merlot or Sauvignon Blanc. Its creamy mouth feel and mild flavour also make it a wonderful addition to an arugula salad.
Ossau-Iraty was voted the best cheese in the world at the 2011 World Cheese Awards. If you’ve tried it before, you’re probably nodding your head right now. And if you haven’t tried it yet, you can order it on the Cheesy Place website.
Visiting the Ossau-Iraty region
What to do
The highlight of this area is the drive along the Ossau-Iraty cheese route. It begins in Gourette in the east, and continues west to Saint-Jean-de-Luz on the coast. Watch for signs saying “Route du Fromage” and signposts marking producers, dairies and farms that are open to the public. While some are open all year, the route is best travelled in June through September. (See the map on the French-only Ossau-Iraty website.)
Rural Bearn and Basque are among France’s least-visited regions, but there are many other wonderful reasons to go. Villa Arnaga in Cambo-Les-Bains, one-time home of the author of Cyrano de Bergerac, is a lovely mansion with peaceful gardens. The citadel in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port offers a perfect view of that town.
If you’re in the region on the third weekend in September, don’t miss the Shepherd Festival in Aramits, complete with a cheese market, folk dancing, and sheepdog competition.
On your way back to the airport, leave yourself time in Toulouse to visit the lovely Saint-Sernin Basilica. Or stop in Lourdes on the way back to watch the nightly procession to the cathedral.
How to get there
Your best bet is to fly into Toulouse. Direct flights are available from Montreal seasonally through Air Transat, and indirect flights are available from a variety of cities through Air Canada and Air France. You’ll want to rent a car to visit the cheese route; most of the popular chains – Avis, Hertz, Enterprise and others – have outlets in Toulouse.
Where to stay
Spend a night (or two) in Toulouse at the beginning and end of your trip: the bucolic Villa Danieli is both peaceful and convenient to city amenities. Alternatively, drive into the countryside to relax at the enchanting Chateau de Lamothe near Moumour.
There are many hotel and B&B choices along the Ossau-Iraty Cheese Route. Decide how long you want to spend driving, and how long you want to stay in each place before you make your bookings. Here are a few accommodation choices:
Maison Paillet in Montory – this farmhouse (pictured above) is located in the foothills of the Pyrenees. The English-speaking hosts offer bed and breakfast, with a choice of three cozy guest rooms.
Idiartekoborda in Saint-Etienne-de Baigorry – the name may be a tongue-twister, but the advantages of staying here are straightforward: beautiful views, comfortable lodgings, and warm hospitality. Also great for hiking.
Looking for a splurge? If you stay at Auberge Ostape near Bidarray (pictured below), you’ll exchange your car at the entrance for a golf buggy, which you’ll ride to one of 22 fabulous suites. The estate is peaceful, and if you choose to eat in, you’ll experience French food at its finest.
Beth Pollock is a freelance writer and editor, who particularly enjoys writing about her twin passions of food and travel. She has had two stints writing and managing social media for Restaurants Canada, and has written articles for MENU magazine and several travel industry websites. She is also the author of three books for children.
While it would be difficult for her to choose a favourite cheese, if you offered her a cheese plate with Chateau de Bourgogne, Ossau-Iraty and Saint Agur Blue, she'd probably never leave your house.
Interested in reading more of what Beth has written? Check out her blog, Of Muses and Meringues.
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