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ossau2Ossau Iraty, Vallée d’Aspe Pur Brebis, $79.99/kg

Sunday’s third cheese was a very nice raw milk Ossau-Iraty.  While this Basque cheese is typically known for a supple and creamy paste, this round was firmer and drier indicating that it had been nicely aged.  The smell alone transports you to a beautiful mountain pasture high in the Pyrenees.  It’s in the natural tan-coloured rind, but it’s also echoed in echoed in the off-white, ivory colored paste.  A wonderfully complex cheese, this particular piece had a pleasant salty sweetness but lacked the buttery quality of a younger version. The fruits and nuts were there. But so was a note of liver, but running through it all was a subtle, yet persistent taste of mountain grasses. Sublime!

Ossau-Iraty is one of many similar cheeses classified as Brebis des Pyrenees, all of which look similar and are made from the same recipe.  The AOC designated Ossau Iraty is made by small producers (typically 2.5-3.5 kg., marked fermier or farm-made) or industrial dairies or cooperatives (typically non-fermier), in the Pays Basque of south western France, – the valleys of the Pyrénées-Atlantiques département, that sit right on top of the border with Spain.

As you’d guess from the name, the cheese is made form the milk of Manech (tete noire and tete rousse) and Basco-Bearnaise ewes that graze in the Ossau valley and the beautiful beech forest of Iraty.   After the formation of a strong marketing association in the late 1970s, the cheese received appellation d’origine contrôlée certification in 1981.  But the AOC, like any regulatory process, has come with a certain politics.  Currently, only 32% of the production is sold as AOC and some folk in the know claim that producers of other Brebis des Pyrenees, in fact make better products, but lack the AOC designation.

I keep promising to discuss the AOC issue, and I’ll get to it sometime soon – promise.  But for now there’s one easy way to gauge the impact of an AOC designation on producers.  In the case of Ossau-Iraty, production more than doubled in the 20 years after the AOC was issued and 85% of total production is shipped out of the region.  Not bad for a cheese that has spent most of its long history in the region. Match that with a price premium of about 20% that comes with the certification, and its not hard to see the economic incentive for chasing down an AOC.  Of course part of that demand was driven by the expansion of fine cheese markets outside of Europe (e.g., North America), but the AOC also helps here as well, since it makes it easier for buyers to source products they know they can sell by using the AOC as a marketing tool – just go and check any cheese shop website and you’ll quickly see how it’s used.  There are obvious environmental implications here as well – that increased production demands higher yields, which means more sheep, which means extending the transhumance cycle (ranging over greater areas for pasture), or more intensive grazing on existing pastures.

Oh damn!  I said I wasn’t going to get into it… I’ll stop now, but there will be more later.

What I really wanted to talk about today is the meaning of cheese, and more specifically the way in which people make equations between making cheese and making life; indeed the way they often see them as one and the same thing.   Analogies between conception and cheese-making are not at all new.  Though tough to verify, some philosophers and historians trace the earliest analogy to Aristotle and his depiction in De generatione animalium (The Generation of Animals). Here, for you reading pleasure, is the basic Aristotelian cheese analogy of conception: (Warning – don’t read this at bedtime)

“When the material secreted by the female in the uterus has been fixed by the semen of the male (this acts in the same way as rennet acts upon milk, for rennet is a kind of milk containing vital heat, which brings into one mass and fixes the similar material, and the relation of the semen to the catamenia is the same, milk and the catamenia being of the same nature)- when, I say, the more solid part comes together, the liquid is separated off from it, and as the earthy parts solidify membranes form all round it; this is both a necessary result and for a final cause, the former because the surface of a mass must solidify on heating as well as on cooling, the latter because the foetus must not be in a liquid but be separated from it.” (De generatione Animalium, Bk. II, 739b, 22-31)

“Whereby, too, it is plain that the semen does not come from the whole of the body; for neither would the different parts of the semen already be separated as soon as discharged from the same part, nor could they be separated in the uterus if they had once entered it all together; but what does happen is just what one would expect, since what the male contributes to generation is the form and the efficient cause, while the female contributes the material. In fact, as in the coagulation of milk, the milk being the material, the fig-juice or rennet is that which contains the curdling principle, so acts the secretion of the male, being divided into parts in the female.” (Bk. I, 729a, 7-14)

This explanation of conception isn’t culturally unique.  The same kind of analogies appear in ‘middle age’ explanations of embryonic development throughout the Middle East and South Asia.  This might have something to do with an early Arabic translation of De generatione animalium , or it might just be that cheese making is simply an easy way to envisage conception.

So what does this have to do with Brebis?  For the answer to that I direct you to Sandra Ott’s classic ethnography Circle of Mountains: A Basque Shepherding Community, and her discussion of how cheese-making is central to understandings of human conception held by some Basque communities in the very same mountain ranges that produce Ossau Iraty. What I love about Ott’s work is the way she reveals how this equation between making babies and making cheese continues to resonate in some parts of the world.  It’s a wonderful example of how integrated cheese-making can be into people’s self-representations of who they are,  their social relations, and their conceptions of place and the politics that surround it.

Now…the story

The summer version of Brebis des Pyranees – is made by Basque shepherds who are divided into pasture syndicates called olhak (pl.).  An Olha is also the name of the hut that shepherds and cheese-makers live in while they’re in the high pasture.  I know from my own work in the mountains of northern Pakistan that pastures are fantastical places where the social relations that govern life in valley communities are re-ordered.  This is also the case in the Pyrenees.  Pastures are a man’s world. With the exception of one day, when the animals are delivered, only men inhabit the pasture.  Of course, this means that they have to take on the chores usually done by women.  Men being men, the shepherds take turns at this, each becoming the etchakandere – literally the woman of the house – for a few days at a time.  Each in their turn take on all of the ‘domestic duties’ that would be exclusively handled by women if they were down in the valley – making and serving meals, sweeping the floor of the hut, collecting firewood, keeping the fire going, washing the dishes, and so.  Far from being embarrassed, shepherds are proud of their domestic skills, though Ott claims that they’d never admit it to a woman. Above everything else however the etchakandere is concerned with making the cheese.  And this matters for a man because mountain cheese is more than just food in these valleys, it is an object through which a man is evaluated as a shepherd and a provider, and yes, as a stud!  That’s right.  A man’s sexual prowess is based on the quality of his cheese.  It’s clear after all – a shepherd who knows how to make a good cheese – one that has a solid rind and no holes or cracks in the paste – must be adept at impregnating his wife.

Stay with me now.  There’s a logic to this, but there are some twists and turns along the way. But this is what makes cheese so fascinating to me, and helps to explain why it is so much more than what you put in your mouth.  If anything, that last gasp, the consumption of cheese, is its physical death.  What I’m about to tell you, is its life.

In the Basque communities that Ott studies, people explain human conception in terms of cheese-making.  When a woman becomes pregnant, people greet her with “gatzatü ziok” (fem.), or “you’ve been curdled”. Gatzatü is a verb that describes the action of rennet upon milk and the action of semen upon red blood.  O.K., now here’s one twist.  Traditional Basque physiology recognizes two types of blood – red blood and white blood.  Red blood is said to be formed in the womb when a women begins menstruation and continues to flow in the womb until menopause.  It’s red blood, not the ovaries, that makes a woman potentially fertile.  White blood, on the other hand, is contributed by the man and carries his semen.

Alright, so white blood acting on red blood … So long as the body blood of a man stays hot and his white blood flows, he is said to have indara, or the generative power to curdle a hot liquid (red blood) and its life giving properties.  In order for human semen to curdle red blood in the womb, that blood must be pure and hot.  And it’s only when the the blood has curdled, that the substance of the fetus is formed in the womb.  Hmmm…kind of sounds like making cheese, no?  And sure enough that’s how the Ott’s informants explain this stage of conception – like the shepherd who collects the curdled milk, or kaillatia, at the bottom of the kettle and forms the cheese.   Kaillatia, is also the word for the human fetus.  According to Ott, for the shepherd, human semen isn’t simply like rennet, it’s a direct equivalent.  To make her point, she describes a conversation with one shepherd about coitus interuptus: “what shepherd would put his rennet into the milk if he did not wish to make a cheese.”

So, to put this in relational tems we might say that – Semen: Red blood: Baby as Rennet:Milk:Cheese

In other words, rennet curdles milk to form a cheese in the same way that human semen curdles blood to form a baby.

But there’s still more to the story  (this is the last twist, I promise).  In the Basque worldview, human semen doesn’t just curdle the red blood, it gives substance to the fetus.  It joins with the red blood so that the fetus is made up of both male white blood and female red blood.  And they explain this in terms of cheese making, because in their view, rennet (i.e. white blood) doesn’t just curdle milk (i.e., red blood), it also becomes part of the cheese (i.e., the fetus).  It also contains a particular element that mixes with the substance of the cheese during curdling and gives a cheese what they call ‘bone’ – that hard, dense interior characteristic of Brebis des Pyerenees.

And this is where the babies and brebis come together  – in the birth of a mountain cheese, niñi txipia – ‘the little baby’.  Because of the rennet that solidifies them, mountain cheeses, like babies, are seen to be alive and need to be cared for and nurtured in the early stages of their life.  To develop a strong rind and ‘bone’, the cheese-maker must turn the cheese and rub it down with salt to protect the interior of the cheese.  Until that rind is fully formed, the cheese is said to be ‘as fragile as a baby’.  And  like a cheese, rubbed in salt to form a protective rind, a baby is also given salt at baptism in order to protect its body; a baby is turned in front of the fire to strengthen its bones.  And in days not too long past, a babies and cheeses were kept in the same space  during the first 3 months of life while the bone was soft and easily injured. See, it is Geography!

It’s wonderful pieces of research like Ott’s that continually renew my fascination with cheese and the meaning it holds for people.  If you have other tales, however long or short, I’d be grateful if you’d add them as comments, or drop me a line.