Béarn High Pasture Cheese France
Every year in June, around eighty shepherds from the three valleys of Béarn (Ossau, Aspe and Barétous) lead their flocks of sheep to the rich mountain pastures on the French side of the Western Pyrenees. For three months they live in small isolated stone huts, frequently hard to access, and produce traditional tommes: pressed raw milk cheeses which can weigh over five kilograms.
This is an age-old practice, though significant state aid has funded the renewal of some cheese producing facilities in the last 10 years, allowing them to meet European hygiene regulations.
Native sheep of the “Basque-Béarne” breed are particularly well adapted to the mountain environment and provide all the sheep milk used for cheesemaking.
The sun-drenched pastures at an altitude between 900 and 2000 meters grow mountain flowers in an array of colors and aromas. Alpine clover together with mountain thyme give the cheese a delicate nutty flavor. Some shepherds, particularly in the Aspe valley, also bring a few cows to the pastures and continue to produce an older style “mixed” cheese by mixing two parts of cow’s milk with one part of sheep milk—it is more delicate, but still soft and intense.
After aging at least four months in humid premises, the tommes assume an attractive beige-orange color. Their outstanding quality is due to the animals’ natural diet, the skill of the shepherds, who make no more than two or three cheeses a day, and the slow, carefully controlled aging.
These cheeses are soft and even after aging develop a delicate aroma of milk, nuts, mushrooms, vegetables, together with persistent flavor.
The cheese from each mountain dairy is unique because non-refrigerated milk keeps the pasture’s microbial flora, giving it a distinctive flavor. In many cases it would otherwise be necessary to add artificial enzymes.
Shepherds have to be truly dedicated to continue transhumance, live according to the rhythms of nature, spend hours milking and making cheese by hand, accompany a flock of a least 300 animals, conserve the mountain pasture landscape, and cope with the isolation—and sometimes the bears.
Production of these high-quality cheeses on mountain pastures cannot be taken for granted. There is a temptation to abandon the mountain dairies and work in the valley, with the risk that these landscapes and the ancient cheesemaking knowledge could be lost.
Since 2008 products made in the mountains have full traceability, but unfortunately the Béarn mountain pasture cheeses are not well known or promoted. The Presidium aims to support the Association of Transhumant Shepherds from the Three Valleys in a program to develop and promote these mountain pasture cheeses, seeking outstanding quality, maintaining the authentic flavor and achieving greater recognition.
The Presidium production rules will ensure that all stages of processing will be completely traditional. Industrial yeasts, for examples, which in many cases are already used to make mountain cheeses, will be progressively replaced by the cheesemaker’s own cultures .
Valleys of Ossau, Aspe and Barétous situated between 900 and 2000 meters, Department of Pyrénées-Atlantiques, Aquitaine Region.
The Association of Transhumant Shepherds from the Three Valleys consists of about 80 shepherds
Gilbert Dalla Rosa
tel. +33 688433575