Being violently hungover is a difficult way to start a road trip.
With swirling visions of a darkened Tiki bar named Aloha and the sugary burn of gallons of Scorpion Bowls still lingering on the back of my throat, Raul and I began our journey to find the Holy Grail of cheeses in the Pyrenees.
The region is known for its sheep's milk cheese, which is still produced by shepherds tucked away in the valleys of the mountains, untouched by man. We had been in Barcelona for a few days and had already consumed excess amounts of seafood, cava, fuet, and gin and tonics. But even though I had not been there for over a decade, my memories still held true. Stumbling across the Boqueria Mercado off the Ramblas to that random Cava bar in Barceloneta that serves Morcilla sandwiches and burgers at 10 AM weren't just fabricated recollections of my youth.
We had "done" the town well, and it still held a special place in my heart. And then we were off to the unknown and uncharted territories we had only read about. In Bilbao, we had two day-long panic attacks, thinking that we had mistakenly put gasoline into our Peugeot Diesel. Scroll the internet for anything, and you will find horror; the consensus being that if the error is in fact, true, you have literally fucked your car.
The port town held little bliss besides good tapas. After figuring out that gas is indeed diesel in Spain, we headed to San Sebastien for a lunch time feast of eight courses of seafood sent from the heavens: griddled pulpo, razor clams marinated in first-pressed olive oil, and fresh raw baby sardines garnished with dollops of lemon cream. Copious amounts of wine soothed our traveling jitters, and soon we were back on the winding roads, headed into the mysterious mountainous region that is deep Basque country.
Before our departure, most people asked us about our schedule, our planned route, and who we were going to visit. We both shruggd, smirked in pure ignorance, and replied, "We are just going to see when we get there." After six hours of driving—the last three of which having been unrecognized territory by our trusty GPS—we arrived into the cheese territory known simply as the Pyrenees. Comprised of three regions known as the Atlantic, Central, and Western, the mountain range runs over 300 miles from the Bay of Biscay to the Mediterranean Sea, an area geologically older than the Alps. It's also known for it's fairytale allure, with the small, independent country Andorra nestled in the middle of the two countries territories, the region has been a symbol of separatist culture and independence since the inception of its country given title.
With an abundance of waterfalls and jagged cliffs, the Pyrenees is a representation of hard-knock life, proving the evolutionary worth of those who have called it home. Its remoteness and difficult terrain has made the area a perfect place for the fierce roaming shepherds and their sheep and the low-hanging clouds have created a dense habitat of moisture that fabricates a fertile bastion.
The cheeses of this area are my personal favorites as a cheesemonger because you can run wild with a range of flavor, from the wet wooliness of feral sheep to the floral balance of wildflowers and damp grass. You can literally taste the pastures that these beasts are grazing upon, and since each pasture is its own microclimate, you'll never get the same flavor twice. Depending on temperature, rainfall, time of day, and general mood, each patch of grass will yield a slight variation by hour.
Once we had descended into the valley of Ossau, we began wildly veering along small dirt roads. We spotted a tiny hand-painted sign proclaiming our desires "Framoge Brebis ici," and took a sharp turn left. We kept going until we smelled a barn.
At the end of an almost vertical dirt road, we encountered a flock of sheep grazing underneath a billowing, shaded tree. Some of the more idyllic producers we stumbled upon were two ruggedly beautiful older women who guarded their little plot of land with a bottle of white port and a small terrier dog with a big bark. The little pup alerted the cheesemakers/farmers/badasses of our arrival several hundreds of feet before we saw the small house tucked behind an open barn. The two women emerged from the small door and beckoned us to come inside. After studying French for over seven years, both Raul and I have a working knowledge of proper Parisian parle, but on the mountainside, smiles and nods go much farther. They pointed us to two wooden chairs in a dark kitchen and disappeared for a moment, emerging with a bottle of booze and three large wheels of cheese. Without hesitation, they joined us in the kitchen for an informal tasting.
They shared the hardships of trying to maintain their way of life in the modern age as we cobbled a conversation in broken French together. They told us horror stories of neighboring farmland getting bought up by big dairy companies, which involved wrangling all their animals into enclosed pastures, where the milk gets homogenized and scorched clean of any intimacy of flavor or depth. These women wore the generations of their trade in the wrinkles of their smiles and presented a chunk of their prize for us to taste with so much pride and humble hope that it was hard not to know what tasted better, the actual cheese or the fact of this simple encounter. We purchased a wheel and slugged back a few more shots of the port, climbed back into the Peugeot and headed down the dirt road to the next fromage sign.