Idiazabal, gastronomic and cultural value (part I)

What happens when you mix culture, values, small farms, artisanal producers and their respective interests? The Idiazabal cheese, well known all over world, is only made with milk from the latxa breed of sheep, and to a lesser extend with milk from the carranzana breed. These two breeds of sheep, found in the Basque Country and Navarra since time immemorial, are linked to the same culture and are subject to the same environmental management. The small sized sheep flocks adapt to the terrain and to the idiosyncrasies of basque farms. This way the environment and its way of life and production values stay alive.  

The “Appellation of Origin” of the Idiazabal cheese supports this idea. Others, however, forget about the importance of the breed and favour productivity. There are more than 100 cheese farmers, members of the Idiazabal A.O. that have their own flock of sheep and they produce cheese with latxa milk. There are other cheese makers that buy the milk of the latxa sheep to make the cheese from, and finally there are some others, about two or three big companies, that buy the milk to produce the cheese in an industrial, rather than artisanal, way. If these big companies meet the requirements for the production of the cheese, their cheese is also certified as from Idiazabal. But there is unfair competition, generated by the industry and sometimes with the support of the small producers, who feel pressured by the market situation and the law of supply and demand. The companies involved push to obtain lower prices, generating more demand for this type of cheese, from limited production.

In 2007, a fraud was revealed when the A.O. detected that there was a cheese farm that used to make the cheese with milk from outside the Basque Country and from other sheep breeds. By using non latxa milk they could double the production of the Idiazabal cheese and meet the high levels demand. However, this is not the norm, the strict controls and inspections of the Idiazabal A.O. try to keep these kinds of fraudulent actions at bay.

Currently confusion reigns on the shelves of large supermarket chains. The industrial farms that elaborate the idiazabal cheese on a larger scale have created a parallel brand: “Etxegarai”. This is a copy of Idiazabal cheese, but made with cheaper sheep’s milk from other breeds. It is cheaper, but its marketing and branding are identical to Idiazabal cheese. The A.O., is very careful and supervise that this type of cheese it is not sold as an Idiazabal cheese. To produce Idiazabal cheese only milk from the latxa and carranzana sheeps can be used, however big cheese companies make other cheeses, similar to the Idiazabal, and they are within their right to do so. These cheeses are made the same way as the Idiazabal cheese and it is very difficult to appreciate the difference between them or to determine the type of sheep breed has produced the milk. These cheeses are quality cheeses but without the added value that comes with supporting the families that work to maintain the latxa race. The A.O. doesn’t just support the latxa breed but also the land management and exploitation of local territory. This is an age old battle, but currently, all eyes are looking at the supermarkets and how to avoid confusion in the consumer on the shelves.

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