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The Pyrenees Is a Wonderland of Sheep and Cheese

Big corporations making Istara or Petit Basque want to sell you the vibe of the Pyrenees, but I call BS. It’s like the difference between Audrey Hepburn and Kim Kardashian.
Photo via Flickr user franekn

One of the reasons why I love cheese is that it's connected to the land, to the soil, to the history and traditions of a region. Cheese is a story in and of itself. Real cheese—cheese that is still made with milk from animals who graze out in the open fresh air, who are nurtured and cared for by farmers who love and respect them, with all that utopian shit that even a vegan would get teary-eyed about—that's the cheese I love.


We are at a crossroads in the cheese world. Yes, a pivotal point in the dairy industry where words like "artisanal," "farmstead," and "organic" have become marketing ploys to increase prices and make people feel all fancy.

But cheese shouldn't be a status symbol. Cheese was born as a way for farmers to feed their family through the lean months when milk yield was low or nonexistent.

The new trend in cheese is for a large company to buy up small farms that used to make their own special wheels that tasted of the grasses and flowers that their herd munched upon. These big corporations buy up all the milk and transport it to giant factories where it's scorched and jostled before being dumped into a monolithic machine that processes it into a uniform creation that no longer represents the area where it's from—that one special hillside with all the wild clovers, or that lush valley where the wild garlic blooms early.

One of the most significant areas at risk is the Pyrenees. The mountainous region that borders France and Spain has been the point of cultural pride for the Basque people for centuries. It's also a geographical wonder for shepherds. The mountainous terrain and high cliffs capture that moisture from low clouds, creating a green heaven that rivals the Emerald Triangle for dankness. The sheep of this area nibble freely on an infinity of wildflowers and grasses. Each area has its own style of wheel, such as Ossau Iraty or Ardi Gasna, and each farmer's wheel is unique and tastes nothing like their neighbor's creation. To taste these cheeses is to taste the wooly happiness that is this history.

Larger companies making Istara or Petit Basque might want to sell you the concept of this region, but I call bullshit. It's basically the difference between Audrey Hepburn and Kim Kardashian: While one might intimidate you with her beauty and pose, the other is a plastic-coated figment of what "reality" is being sold as these days.

So the next time you are standing in front of an array of cheeses, ask for a Pyrenees sheep's milk and prepare to have your mind fucking blown. Then go watch a marathon of Keeping Up with the Kardashians and try to figure out how we are all members of the same species.