Produced in the Basque and Navarra regions of northern Spain, Idiazabal is a smoked cheese made from the raw milk of Latxa or Carranza sheep. It is one of the area's best-known products and, as such, its name is protected by a Board of Denomination of Origin.
Named for the village of Idiazabal, located in the Goierri valley, the production of the cheese originated in the high mountain pastures of the region, where it was made by the nomadic shepherds. For the duration of the summer the shepherds would move their sheep up the mountain to graze on the lush, new grass. During this time they would also milk the sheep and make cheese in their mountain huts, storing the cheeses in the rafters to mature.
By the end of September, with the advancing bad weather, the shepherds, sheep and cheeses all returned to the lower slopes, by which time the cheeses were ready for sale and had developed a distinctly smoky flavor from having been stored near the fires in the huts all summer long.
Today the artisan producers of Idiazabal cheese imitate these traditional cheesemaking methods. After production, cheeses are matured for one month before being smoked using Beech or Hawthorne, which imparts a piquant flavor. Cheeses are then matured further before being sold.
At the time of sale, the rind of Idiazabal is a smooth, dark, yellow-brown color and has a slightly burnt aroma. The rind carries the marks of the wooden molds in which the curd is drained.
The texture of the cheese is compact and slightly waxy, and dotted with small holes. It is fairly dry but not crumbly, and feels pleasantly supple.
Flavors are sweet and aromatic, tasting of bacon and caramel. Idiazabal pairs well with a simple red wine or a dry cider.