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It was generally found that the shepherds used to make and continue, to a large extent, making cheese up on the high pasture, in their mountain huts. The methods used to make the cheese have been similar everywhere.

During the transhumance, they made the cheeses in those places where they were based. In many locations, the milk was collected from the mountain where the shepherd was with his flock and taken to the farmstead for other members of his family to make the cheese using similar tools and procedures to those of the shepherd’s hut. The items used there were sometimes more modern.

It has been more common to make cheese out of ewe’s milk, but the custom of making it using goat’s milk was reported, particularly in Álava. Cheese made out of cow’s milk was made at the farmsteads for the household and to be sold locally, when there was surplus production and prior to it becoming the norm to sell the milk to dairy plants.

At the start of the season, more milk is needed to make the same amount of ewe’s cheese as later on, as the milk becomes and thicker and fatty with the passing of time. Thus, in Triano (B), Ernio (G) and Aldatz y Larraun (N), they said that around six litres of milk were need to prepare a kilogram of cheese early on the year. In the Oiz area and in Orozko-Gorbea (B), they explained that five litres were needed to make a cheese at the start of the season and four litres later; in Nabarniz (B), two litres were used to make a cheese that weighs just over a pound.

In Gipuzkoa, during the first 90 days of production, seven litres were need to make a good kilo of cheese, while only four were needed on the other 90 production days[1].

In the 1920s, P. Lizarralde learnt from the shepherds of Oñati (G) that a good cheese had to meet the following conditions: not sound hollow, not sweat and not be opened. A good cheese had a thin rind and a buttery crumb; a bad one would fall to pieces on the knife and would become worm-eaten with time.

In the early 20th century, it was said that for an ewe to produce good milk, she had to be fed dark grass; but she would need to eat meadow grass for thick and fatty milk. It was thought, and still is today, that the grazing in a sunny area was better than in the shade. Cheese made out of the milk of sheep that grazed on the upland, such as the Urbia (N), Aralar (N and G) and Gorbea (A and B) cheeses, were highly sought after.

In the past, the cheese made up on the high pastureland were kept in caves or even produced there, as was reported in some of our surveys (Gorbea, Ganekogorta-B, Urbia-G and Zuberoa).

On same high pastureland in the Urbia and Urbasa area, it was usual to intensely smoke the cheese and the best way to do so was by burning alder, cherry, birch or similar wood; the important thing was for the wood to be damp as smoke was needed without a flame. That smoking process, which varied in length, turned the cheese first yellow and finally red-black in colour.

Sheep’s cheese making

On the Atlantic side of the watershed and in the northern part at the top of the Mediterranean side, sheep’s cheese was made on the high pastureland. The cheese was sometimes made at the homestead, when the shepherd’s family lived close to the pastureland and it was easy for the milk to be collected after milking; and when the flock was on the winter pastureland down in the valley. Those flocks are mainly made up of Lacha ewes bred for milk, while most of the sheep on the Mediterranean side of the watershed are Rasa or other breeds, kept for breeding and selling meat.

The cheese market

Fresh cheese was traditionally sold in the local markets closest to where it was produced and it was also delivered to shops, bars and regular customers. The same was true of the cured cheese, even though it was also sold directly from the pastureland or farmsteads and orders were often placed. These customs still remain today even though there is a trend to sell the cheese to order or for the people to travel to the farmstead and even the markets to buy it.

Contemporary transitions

The introduction of the press to get rid of the whey was an important change in cheese manufacturing and it was found nearly everywhere in the Basque Country by the mid-20th century. Apart from this innovation, the requirement for hygiene measures and the sale of milk to dairy plants led to the disappearance of the wooden tools and their progressive replacement by metallic ones.

Nowadays, cheese is now only made for the household’s use in many places and the milk produced sold to large dairies. It was also generally reported that cheese used to be salted or put in brine, but now salt is added to the milk right from the start, when making the mixture.

  1. Ignacio GALLASTEGUI. “Quesos de oveja” in Munibe, I (1951) pp. 155-157. According to this paper, in 1951 Gipuzkoa Provincial Council had the Fraisoro Cheese-Making School to teach cheese-making techniques. The author espoused the itinerant teaching of cheese-making skills, which has previously been tried out in Oñati, aimed at the local shepherds and livestock farmers, as he complained about the poor production given the raw ingredient was so good. Also see by the same author: “Industrias derivadas de la leche” in Conferencias de la Semana Alavesa Agro-Pecuaria. Vitoria: 1923, pp. 3-28.