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Jul 19 2016

Following The Scent of Idiazabal Cheese

Nestled in the valleys of the lush green mountain ranges that rise up from the Aralar and Aizkorri Natural Parks, the area of Goierri is known for its shepherding tradition that has remained largely unchanged for thousands of years. Located in the province of Guipúzcoa in Basque Country, the dewy mountain slopes in this area are dotted with 16th century stone and wood caseríos, (farmhouses) and of course the long haired latxa sheep who provide the high-quality milk used to make Idiazabal cheese. Although this cheese is produced throughout Basque Country and in bordering Navarra, this route takes us through the heart of the Idiazabal cheese-producing region, starting with the mountain valley towns and winding its way northward to the coast


It is important to note that the best time to visit the area is early spring or late autumn. Cheese is usually made from December to June and many of the farmers still practice transhumance, following ancient grazing routes up the mountains with their flocks in the early summer, and retreating down to the valleys in the winter.

The route begins in the village that lends its name to this renowned cheese. The town of Idiazabal is located off of Highway A-1 at exit 416 (45 km / 28 mi from San Sebastián). The town's main road leads past fluffy donkeys in a flowering orchard across from the cozy Hotel Zepai to the Idiazabal Cheese Interpretation and Tasting Center. The Center shares a building with the Artzai-Gazta Cheese Producer's Association, dedicated to the support and preservation of this tradition. Members of the organization share the special distinction of making Idiazabal cheeses from the milk of their own sheep, and are therefore both queseros and pastores.

Enter the museum through the second door, located in front of the groomed, cheese-shaped bushes. A short video in this kid-friendly museum provides a great introduction to area cheese making, and there is also a reproduction of a typical shepherd's hut, a wheel of sheep-milk cheeses, and tasting and aroma stations.

Next, drive past the monument of the shepherd located in the garden behind the church of Archangel San Miguel, with its 12-13th century Romanesque-Gothic portal, and follow the signs up the hill on the right to the Aranburu quesería, which is owned and operated by three brothers and their families. As Javier Aranburu explains, "Idiazabal cheese is a raw, unprocessed cheese that can only be made using fresh, quality milk from latxa sheep, so this process must be carried out almost daily in season."

On cheese making days, you can watch them heat the fresh milk and add the coagulating agent (traditionally lamb rennet). The hardened mixture is then broken up into rice-sized curds and separated from the whey (liquid). The fresh cheese is pressed and put into round molds, and placed in salt water for 10-12 hours, before being moved to a cool high-humidity chamber and stored for a minimum of 60 days. Save the date: the first Sunday in May is Cheese Day in Idiazabal, a great opportunity to join in the cheese tastings and competitions, or buy cheeses from local shepherds.

Medieval Villages

Coming down the hill, turn right to head out of town. At the first roundabout, take the GI-2637 road for 3 km /1.8 mi to Segura, a pretty medieval town on a hill characterized by the striking church of Nuestra Señora de la Asunción that overlooks the valley below, and the Casa Ardixarra house (both 16th century), which houses the tourist office and Center for Medieval Interpretation. Stop for a chat with Felix Goiburu at his shop in town. The son of a sixth-generation shepherd, he sells Idiazabal cheeses made by his parents at their nearby farm, in addition to other local products.

You can also buy cheese directly from their caserío, which has been beautifully restored to include seven charming guest rooms, each with a view of green, rolling pastures. Idiazabal cheeses from this area in particular are sometimes lightly smoked in order to deepen the color of the rind and impart a delicate flavor. Ask Félix's parents to see the small, cylindrical silo where they smoke some of their cheeses over alder or cherry wood.

Directly across the valley is the town of Zerain, reached by following route GI-2637 for about 1.5 km / 0.9 mi to route GI-3520, which winds up a hill to the town. At the tourist center you can pick up information about local attractions, including the Ethnological Museum, with its collection of household items; the 17th century jail, the hydraulic sawmill, and Iron Mountain. You can also call ahead and organize a tour of a quesería and bee farm, honey being another important local product. This center also sells an array of cheeses, olive wood utensils, baskets, and fruit and vegetable preserves made by the women of the village.

Shepherd's Day in Ordizia

Now, go back to the GI-2637 and head 8 km / 5 mi back the way you came, until you reach the A-1 Highway. Take it north to the town of Ordizia, a town whose past and future are inextricably linked to Idiazabal cheese. If you're hungry, you can stop off in Beasain (just before Ordizia), a large town known for its black sausage, and have a bite at chef Iban Mate's restaurant Jatetxea Dolarea. An expert on the regional young white wine txakoli and local products, Iban's favorite dish is the warm salad with Idiazabal cheese and txakoli vinaigrette.

Once in Ordizia, stop by the D'Elikatuz Center for Nutrition and Gastronomy (also the tourist office), which is nestled up against the old town wall. The top floor has exhibitions dedicated to Idiazabal cheese, the local market, and a fascinating interactive video of some of Spain's finest chefs discussing their views on food.

If you are lucky, you will make it to Ordizia for Shepherd's Day on the Wednesday after Easter. This vibrant festival includes sheep shearing contests, lamb roasts, and the running of flocks of sheep through the cobblestone streets of this 13th century town. A highlight of the day is the symbolic cutting of the year's first cheese by a famous chef.

According to one of the previous year's honorees, Elena Arzak, "Idiazabal cheese is very special to chefs, and something that we are very proud to have on our menus. It is crucial to defend and support the shepherds and the quality of their products, so that people realize the importance of this cheese and the efforts that go into its production."

On this, and every Wednesday since 1512, you can enjoy the town's strikingly beautiful farmer's market, currently held under a majestic canopy of white columns built in 1925. This vibrant marketplace is an inspiring place to buy cheeses, honeys and vegetables, and other local delights.

Another popular annual event is the Idiazabal cheese competition held at the end of September, when the winning cheese is auctioned off for thousands of Euros.

After a long day of festivities, you can sample small plates of cheese at the bar of the popular Pottoka; or at Martínez, which has both a bar and a restaurant, where you can taste dishes such as entrecote with Idiazabal sauce, and Idiazabal cheese with homemade fig jam for dessert.

Pastoral Ecomuseum and Bread Corner

From Ordizia, go back on the A-1 to Zumarraga (14 km / 86 mi) and then take the GI-2630 for about another 6 km / 3.7 mi through the iron town of Legazpi, to Telleriarte, past rolling hills and bleating sheep, until you see the pink sign for the Ecomuseo del Pastoreo (Shepherd Museum).

Charming owners Arantza Segurola and Juan José Aranguren will give you a tour of the quaint museum located on the ground floor of their beautiful caserío, which features historic tools for shepherding and cheese-making, a model of the mountain top where shepherds and flocks spend their summers, and a short video about shepherding and Idiazabal cheese.

You can see where Arantza makes her delicious cheeses and also sample and purchase differently aged cheeses in the trophy-lined tasting room. While they are always delighted to receive visitors to their working farm/museum, it’s always a good idea to call first.

Across the main road from the Ecomuseum, you can stop by El Rincón del Pan (Bread Museum) at the Igaralde-Goena farmhouse. The exposition is small, but seeing the 17th century flourmill in action is worth it, and the scenery is breathtakingly beautiful.

Heading to the Coast

While this area may have the highest concentration of Idiazabal producers, it is not the only place in Basque Country where this exquisite cheese can be tasted. To prove this point, the route now leaves the lush valleys behind and heads for the crystalline waters of the coast. Take the GI-2630 back to Zumarraga, and the GI-631 towards Azkoitia. The road winds through a wooded canyon alongside an ecstatically babbling creek, and continues to Azpeitia. There, it passes the majestic 17th century Sanctuary of Loiola, before heading toward Zarautz (26 km / 16 mi).

Founded in 1237, coastal Zarautz is better known today for its long sandy beach and great food. Start by visiting the newly refurbished food market, where Idiazabal cheese, fresh anchovies and piparras (hot peppers) are delightfully presented at several stands. The market is bustling in the morning, but starts to close at around 13.00 h.

Fortunately, this is the perfect time to stop for local Basque tapas, known as pintxos, at either Gautxori or Naparrak, which is also famous for its Idiazabal cheesecake. Another option is the restaurant of famous chef Karlos Arguiñano, located in a castle on the beach in the four star hotel of the same name. The seasonal menu always includes a specialty dish made with Idiazabal cheese, such as fresh pasta with oyster mushrooms and Idiazabal cheese gratin.

Make sure you also try the unique Idiazabal flavored ice cream, found at the popular ice cream parlor Arrivati, though it is open only in beach season.

The last leg of the route can be covered by car or afoot on the road that runs along the water to the fishing town of Getaria, just 2,5 km / 1.5 mi away. Take a walk up to the lighthouse overlooking the Bay of Biscay, and then have a seat on the terrace of the Mayflower Restaurant above the port. Known for its delicious grilled fish, the Idiazabal served here is presented very simply, either on its own, or with a bit of quince jam as dessert. It's a fitting final touch to an unforgettable tour of Idiazabal cheese country.

It is important to note that the best time to visit the area is early spring or late autumn. Cheese is usually made from December to June and many of the farmers still practice transhumance, following ancient grazing routes up the mountains with their flocks in the early summer, and retreating down to the valleys in the winter Adrienne Smith/©ICEX
Following Scent Idiazabal Cheese
Following Scent Idiazabal Cheese
Following Scent Idiazabal Cheese

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