The Navarre town of Uharte Arakil celebrated the 36th edition of its Idiazabal Cheese Competition at the end of August. We travel back in time to our staff writer's first experience as a judge for this annual event.
This region’s cheeses, protected under the Designation of Origin Idiazabal, are made from the prized milk of latxa sheep, found here and on the other side of the Sierra de Aralar mountains in the province of Guipuzcoa. Last April, I had my first taste of the famed Idiazabal cheeses while tracing a route through the mountains and valleys of Guipuzcoan Basque Country. However, this was to be my first visit to the Navarra side of the mountains and to the town of Uharte-Arakil, which lies happily situated in a serene valley, with mountains rising up on either side.
In addition to its long tradition of sheep herding and cheese-making, this area of Navarra is also known for the millennium-old San Miguel en Excelsis Sanctuary, perched some 800 m (2,624 ft) up in these mountains, overlooking the town. People come from all over to see its Romanesque altarpiece, one of the finest pieces of European enamelwork in the world. Many of the town’s inhabitants, including my host, José Mari Ustarroz, President of the Designation of Origin Queso Idiazabal and a lifelong resident of Uharte, spend their Sundays hiking up mountain trails to the Sanctuary for stunning views of the valley below. José Mari had invited me to spend the last Sunday in August at the celebration of their annual Shepherd’s Day, known here as Artzai Eguna.
Even without the excited buzz of the town’s early morning preparations, Uharte-Arakil seems almost too charming to be true. Although past fires have erased some of the older structures, spotless 17th century stone houses still line the two main streets that run perpendicular to the town square. One of these used to be the Arakil River, where José Mari’s grandmother did their washing on the stones along the riverbanks, before it was re-routed at the beginning of the 1900’s. Beyond the town, this street eventually ends at a Roman bridge near the base of the mountains. The roadside is so colorful that I began to wonder if some town law stipulates that you must have gorgeous and brightly colored flowers on every windowsill and doorway.
Despite all of this charm, I started off the morning a bundle of nerves, having forgotten to bring along José Mari’s telephone number. Given that the town’s population of 900 swells to some 6,000 on this day, I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to find him. I should have known that he would be at the Aralar Mendi headquarters on the main square. This inviting plaza is framed on one side by the old stone church of Saint John the Baptist, and on the other by the 16th century stone headquarters the cultural society, which has been responsible for organizing the Artzai Eguna festival for the past 43 years. The society’s objective is to defend the area’s shepherding and cheese-making traditions, and to promote and celebrate the special characteristics of the latxa sheep. In addition to the cheese contest, the day’s activities included sheep-shearing competitions and a very special competition dedicated to sheep dogs and their training.
Sure enough, José Mari was there to welcome me, his face beaming with the enthusiasm of a young boy. He soon gave me a quick tour of the member’s-only society, which ended up in the kitchen. There, the society’s President Iñigo Gorostidi was swathed in a massive apron and stirring a pot where, I was told, an entire sheep was stewing for the lamb stew competition that I would also be judging later on that day. Aralar Mendi’s stew would be pitted against lamb stews from four other cultural societies based in neighboring towns. When I asked him about the importance of this festival he remarked, “We all live through the memories and experiences that in the end are our traditions, and we strive to preserve them…if we allow these traditions to be lost, people will forget where they come from, as well as the progress that has been made over time.” Finally, full of nerves and anticipation, I was taken to meet the other judges.
I should be clear that, while I was extremely delighted and honored to participate in the festival, I had no illusions about being an expert in Idiazabal cheeses, and I said as much everyone I met. In fact, I tried to give José Mari ample opportunities to back out of his kind invitation, but to no avail. I felt even more inadequate as I met my fellow judges, all experts in the gastronomic arts: famed Navarra restaurateurs such as Atxen Jiménez of Túbal Restaurant in Tafalla, and Javier Diaz of the Alhambra Restaurant in Pamplona; academics like Professor Francisco José Pérez Elortondo, from the Laboratory of Sensory Analysis at the University of País Vasco in Vitoria; and gastronomic photographer Xabi Landa, among others.
We were divided into groups of four at six long tables set in front of the church, in a line facing the square. Each table was covered in brightly checked tablecloths, baskets of apples and bread (to cleanse our palates), and attended by girls wearing the town’s traditional dress. The competition kicked off with a traditional Basque dance known as the aurresku performed by a man accompanied on drum and flute by a young woman. Later, we were treated to music and dancers dressed as traditional joaldunak, in heavy sheepskin costumes traditionally used for purification rituals.
A world of its own
As the first cheese of this blind tasting was placed in front of us, I was relieved to realize that scoring would be carried out by our table as a whole. While I hoped that my background as a sommelier would be of some use, as I soon learned, cheese judging is a world of its own.
Despite the fact that Idiazabal cheeses must all meet the same basic requirements, the variety of different flavors, aromas and textures promised by the 20 cheeses seemed endless. In addition, Idiazabal cheeses are sometimes smoked, which can add a completely different dimension. Each cheese would receive a score of 1-10 in 8 categories: form (height, convexity, concavity), rind (cleanliness, uniformity), eyes (holes, cracks), color (homogeneity, contrast), aroma (intensity, cleanliness, acidity, sweetness, bite), texture (elasticity, firmness, graininess), flavor (characteristic quality, fullness, balance) and aftertaste (length, persistence). Each of these categories has its own nuances, and according to José Mari Ustarroz, “The optimum characteristics of an Idiazabal Cheese are based on its uniqueness, and are a direct reflection of the natural environment in which it is produced: its climate, its sheep, its grazing, and the knowledge of its cheese makers”.
Fortunately, I had been placed at a table of experts who patiently talked me through the process. About three hours and 20 cheeses later, we turned our scores over for tallying with those of the other judges. After much expectation, the top score was announced, and honor was bestowed on the now three-time winner, Ricardo Reimiro of Eulate, who interestingly enough had the only smoked Idiazabal cheese entry this year.
The euphoric next step was the fast-paced live auction in which the remaining half-round of Ramiro’s cheese was auctioned off for an amazing 4,200 Euros to Solbes Gourmet from Irún. As José Mari explained to me, “Winning this competition is the greatest trophy that a shepherd/cheese-maker can ask for. It brings both renown and a social recognition of their life’s work, while helping them achieve a commercial success that would otherwise be unattainable.” However, the money from the auction is actually given back to the event’s organizers, who in turn work to protect the interest of shepherds and invest in future events.
It seemed like a perfect way to end a day. A town and its societies had come together for an event that celebrates both its cultural heritage and traditional way of life. Guests had traveled from all over Spain (and beyond) to evaluate cheeses and thereby pay homage to this tradition. An individual winner’s achievement had been supported by a larger company’s “symbolic” purchase and recognition of his product. Finally, the money gained from this win was diverted back into helping and supporting the community.
I paused to wonder at the beauty of this cycle for a moment, my face turned up to the sun, the cheese happily settling in my belly. Suddenly I realized that I was being swept along by the crowd towards the covered frontón where a lunch of -- you guessed it -- roasted lamb was being served. Seated at a table between the strapping winner of the sheep-shearing competition and the President of Aralar Mendi and his son, with the rest of the town buzzing around me, I realized with a thankful sigh that my day in this town was just beginning.