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Ekiola Sheep in the Pyrenees Mountains

Ekiola Sheep in the Pyrénées Mountains

A trip through the French Basque country is one of distinct sights, scents, and flavors. Rolling hills of green pastures are punctuated by craggy mountain peaks and deep valleys, and sheep are everywhere! When Ihsan, Valerie and I traveled through the area in the fall, we tasted a huge array of sheep milk cheeses and an assortment of intense but beautiful wines. Here, we’re featuring a few of our favorite tastes: Ardi Gasnas from Fromagerie Pardou and Ekiola, and a killer red wine from Domaine Ilarria of Irouléguy. Ardi Gasna (or gazna) is Basque for “sheep cheese,” and these smooth, rich sheep cheeses are a specialty in the Pyrénées mountains.

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Here at Formaggio Kitchen – despite our obvious allegiance to the Italian word “formaggio” – our dedication to French cheeses and other produits du terroir is the foundation for our entire selection. So, visiting France and meeting the folks who make the dozens of different products we regularly import is a special experience – kind of like when you visit a college friend at home and meet their parents, see their neighborhood.

Every two years, France hosts a huge fair in Paris, Salon de l’Agriculture, to celebrate the people and products that make up the country’s agricultural scene. Imagine eight convention centers, each with a different theme — one hall full of wine, another full of olive oil, and even one full of animals. It’s a giant country fair, complete with medals and honors – Paris-style.

We attended earlier this year specifically for the cheese show, Salon du Fromage. This particular salon is open only to industry professionals and is an opportunity for cheesemakers, affineurs and distributors to display their products and chat with clients. Cheese industry folks from all over the world crowd the hall to see what’s new and catch up with associates. We bounce from appointment to appointment: discussing packaging options for a new large-format Epoisses, for instance, then meeting with a cheesemaker from the Pyrénées to taste sheep cheese and learn about the new co-operative dairy they are building to support area shepherds.

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