Getting Lost with Cheese in The Basque Country Is Like Taking Too Many Shrooms

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Getting Lost with Cheese in The Basque Country Is Like Taking Too Many Shrooms

I recently found myself in a small Basque village that felt like a cross between a sedated attraction at Disneyland and a really intense acid trip at a county fair, but the cheese was some of the best I've tasted.
October 18, 2015, 8:00pm

Traveling is great: it's escapism. You get to leave all the obligations and responsibilities of "life" and "home" and take off on adventures into the unknown. Sure, there are the harsh facts of going days without a decent means to bathe, or sleeping precariously between two couch cushions while the hard frame is used as a cot by another "guest," but that's all part of the fun.

Rashes and kinked necks heal, but memories don't.

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One of the biggest perks about being a cheesemonger is that you get to travel because no farmer can leave their land or their animals. And while we mongers stand shackled to the counter for the majority of our lives, there are these fleeting days or weeks when we get to depart from our cages and stick our own feet deep into the dirt.

READ MORE: My Quest for the Holy Grail of Cheeses Wasn't Easy

During a particularly long road trip through Spain and the Pyrenees and into the south of France, Raul and I found ourselves in a small village that felt like a cross between a sedated attraction at Disneyland and a really intense acid trip at a county fair. After getting lost several times and stumbling across some amazing small cheesemakers, we arrived at the tiny town of Espelette as the sun was fading from high noon into late dusk. Under the guidance of our French colleague Christian, we had been told of this strange town, but only that "Oh yes, very much, you should go to the town of Espelette."

espelette-butcher

What I had known of Espelette was purely the superficial; the somewhat factual: it's a pepper. I was unaware that there was a whole town from which this pepper came. Famous for its faint fruitiness and balanced undertones of smoke and dust, Espelette is what is appropriately spicy for the French palate, which is to say, not spicy. After coming to the Northern territory of the Basque country sometime back in the 16th century by way of South America as a medicinal wonder, Espelette slowly became the most common pepper used in the areas culinary landscape. I had really only experienced it as an additive to cheeses that were somewhat factory produced. The sad phenomenon I speak of involves big dairies buying up small farmer's milk and then taking it back to their secret lairs where they bleach and scorch the shit out of the high quality, super nuanced, liquid until it's a non-recognizable lactic substance. In an effort to add some flavor and color back into it, these mad scientists add a hefty helping of Espelette, which creates a bright orange, slightly pink hue to the end result.

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The first thing you notice when you enter the town is that that fucking pepper is everywhere. Literally: hanging off the low two-story buildings drying in the sun, ground into powder, bottled, and presented as awards in store windows. The shingled roofs, the wooden windows—even the brick roads—were all done up in the hue of the rich, red pepper. Groups of foodie tourists pranced past us as we sat at an outdoor cafe, slurping ciders in an attempt to loosen our muscles from too many hours positioned as driver and passenger in the Peugeot. Store after store offered the same selection of pepper infused goodies: pâté, jarred cassoulet, saucisson, and cheese. This town has pride of its gift to the food world. After a nourishing dinner of a hearth and soul-filling Basque stew, we departed to our rooms to sleep like boozed-up babies.

cheese-wheels

In the early morning light, the town of Espelette takes on an eerie glow; an almost Delicatessen-like vibe. There must be missing tourists that end up ground down into the famous sausages around here, which hang in the butchers' windows. We departed the town with a trunk full of drying peppers and a strange sensation that we had been spared from something. Back on the road—and completely lost again—we stumbled through a town that had painted wooden cut outs lining a one-lane road. As it turns out, some poet created an entire world of talking animals and fables for this place. This only added to the feeling that the last few days had been a prolonged shroom trip, and that we were having that inevitable realization that we have taken too much. This was our new reality.

espelette-sign

We dead-ended into a small farm down a random dirt road, one of the only farms to work exclusively with goat's milk. The region is famous for its sheep, so a goat lover is kinda a big deal. The lovely couple welcomed us into their barn and showed us around. It dawned on me that this very farm was the producer of one of my favorite cheeses, Tomme D'Aydius, a cheese that I have been selling for nearly a decade but have never known much about it except that sometimes I can get it and sometimes I could not. The super happy herd of goats graze freely in the lush ravines and pump out some crazy floral and mineral heavy milk. The wheels are washed with a secret potion of white wine brine and aged out for around 4 months. The paste is dense, fudgey, and really fucking tasty with hints of brown butter and berry jam.

espelette-cheese

After the tour and tasting, Raul and I packed up a wheel into the ever expanding pantry that was the trunk of the car and headed back up the road to get lost one more time.