Please set down that piece of Brie, and try something different!

Idiazábal is a traditional, sheep's milk cheese from the Spanish Basque country. It is buttery, full-flavored and an interesting addition to a cheese board. In the Basque country and nearby regions, you can purchase Idiazábal many varieties; fresh and cured, plain or hardwood-smoked. Most exported versions are both aged and smoked.

The history of traditional Idiazábal is a fun but ordinary tale. Generations of Basque shepherds tended flocks of Lata sheep in the lush pastures of the Spanish Pyrenees. During the mild summer months, some of the ewes' milk was preserved as cheese and stored in the chimneys of their temporary shelters. When early snows brought the shepherds home, they returned with their cured and smoked cheeses.

Today's Idiazábal is one of Spain's name-controlled cheeses (quesos con denominacian de origen, or D.O.), and even the larger producers use unpasteurized milk and have their neighboring co-op members judge their cheese for quality. When buying a wheel of Idiazábal, look for three marks of authenticity: a red banner with the silver Idiazábal logo on the label; the stamped production number on the cheese's rind; and a numbered, holographic label on the back of the packaging. The hard rind of hardwood-smoked Idiazábal will vary from orange to walnut brown; the smooth, interior paste will be yellow-beige with very small holes.

The smoky, rich flavor of aged Idiazábal pairs well with cured ham and a variety of fresh and preserved fruits. For a lovely picnic, serve it with a good, crusty bread, fresh figs and Serrano ham or prosciutto; bring a bottle of Merlot1 and some sparkling apple cider. The rind of aged Idiazábal is difficult to cut, so I suggest a bit of prep work at home. Cut the wheel of cheese into triangular wedges of about 1/8-inch (a generous 3 mm), remove the rind and store in an air-tight container. It's also convenient to wrap the figs with ham in advance, threading each bundle onto a bamboo skewer.

Idiazábal can be purchased at most gourmet food stores that stock a wide selection of imported cheeses. If you aren't blessed with a good local cheese shop, you will find many online storefronts for Spanish foodstuffs - most stock and ship a nice variety of D.O.M cheeses.

¡Buen apetito!

Hirigoyen, Gerald. The Basque Kitchen. p. 20
Hirigoyen, Gerald and Weiss, Lisa. Pinxtos: Small Plates in the Basque Tradition. p. 140
Jenkins, Steven. Cheese Primer. pp 328, 340-342.
Teubner, Christian. Cheese Encyclopedia. p. 30-39.
Official Site of D.O.M Idiazabal

1. The Debutante suggests serving a Rioja or other Spanish Tempranillo wine. Thanks!

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