From Atlas Etnográfico de Vasconia
Jump to: navigation, search

Other languages:
Inglés • ‎Español • ‎Euskera • ‎Francés

Livestock farming and shepherding have been deep-rooted livelihoods in the Basque Country. In many places, those people subsisted on what the animals - fundamentally ewes, nanny goats and cows - provided. Traditionally, there have been three main products from shepherding, whose importance, however, has varied over time:

  1. Raising and selling livestock for meat
  2. Wool and skin.
  3. Milk and dairy products, particularly cheese.


Types, consumption and marketing

Milk is undoubtedly a staple in the farmstead's economy, both to be consumed and marketed as such, and for being the basis of a wide range of dairy products. Three main types of milk - ewe's, cow's and goat's - are used in the Basque Country. Its production, cost and processing varies from zone to zone, with the first two being most common and in particularly, ewe's milk to make cheese.

Hot stones. Esne-harriak

A traditional procedure to boil ewe's milk that was used until just a few decades ago - 1930 inn Salvatierra (A), 1950 Iroulegy (lp) and 1960 in Izal (N) - was using hot stones heated over the embers..

Once hot, they were placed in the kaiku or wooden recipient to hold milk to bring it to boiling point. Three stones were usually sufficient to bring the milk to the boil.

Colostrum. Esne barria

This is the name given to the first milk produced by the nanny goats, ewes and cows in the days following the birth. The colostrum from nanny goats is particularly sought after in Moreda (A).

The surplus milk after the young have fed is used, if it is not thrown away, by boiling it until it thickens.


The cheeses depending on the type of milk

Ewe's cheese begins to be produced in around February at the same time when the lambs are weaned. Until May, ewes continue to graze in the low land with good pasture land so that they give abundant milk. During that period, the farmsteads usually make fresh cheese. The ewes are then taken to the upland grazing in May. Milk production then starts to fall off and the shepherds make, in the mountain huts or barns, cheeses to cure until July.

Traditional methods for making ewe's cheese

Leaving on one side the industrialised products, the following phases can be seen when making cheese by hand, eskuz eginak,: milking, filtering the milk, curdling the milk, beating the curd, shaping the curd, pressing it and adding salt.

Whey. Gazura

Whey is the liquid part when separates from the milk when it curdles and contains the lactose or milk sugar.

Nearly nothing is wasted, as anything not used for human consumption is kept to fatten the stabled livestock (mainly pigs, but also calves). This food was so important to raise pigs in the past that when the shepherds travelled a long way in search of new pastures, they took a pig to fatten it using the surplus whey from making the cheeses that they sold.

Maturing and storing the cheeses

The cheese is usually matured for several months. This is when it acquires its own organoleptic characteristics.

The cheese is removed from the mould and placed in a cool sport, with not humidity, without air currents that could crack it, and with little light. The site chosen is usually the cellar, the attic or the roof of the kitchen.

Shapes and types of cheese

The shape of the cheese depends on the moulds used. They are generally cylindrical in shape, with the diameter being twice the height and a slight bulge in the centre.

Fundamentally, the maturing phase is when the cheese acquires its special features, according to the type of rennet and milk used, the handling, the atmosphere where it has been worked and the curing and conservation system.

Those characteristics also depend on the source of the milk - from ewes, cows or nanny goats -, on the maturing time - whether the cheese is fresh or cured, on whether it is worked in a mould, by hand or pressed, and on the type of processing - whether it is smoked or unsmoked-.

Marketing the cheese

The sales of artisan cheese have fallen considerably in recent years. According to the surveys, the reason for this phenomenon is down to the administrative obstacles on the grounds of ensuring a rigorous sanitary control. On the other hand, large flocks and herds are needed for the business to be profitable.

Utensils used to make the cheese

Cheese making requires the following utensils: the milking pail, kaiku; the sieve, irazkia; a container for the whey, apatza; the beater, malatxa; the mould, zimitza; the board, kartola and the rack, gaztandegia.

Other dairy products

Curd Cheese. Zenbera

This is made out of the whey from the cheese-making processes. The whey is heated in a pot. Mint is added during the cooking process in some villages such as Apodaca (A). Sizzling stones were used to heat the whey in the past, as was found in Sara and Ainhoa (Ip).

Junket. Mamia. Gatzatua

This dairy product is obtained by coagulating the milk. In the Basque Country, junket is usually made using ewe's rather than cow's and goat's milk. It is best made in May and June when the young animals are weaned and the shepherds can sell more ewe's milk.


Butter is made with the cream, esne-gaina, from the boiled milk which is collected over several days.

It has to be allowed to get cold or be cooled off during the lower temperatures of the night and collected the following morning. Once it has been strained with a slotted spoon into a pot, the cream is beaten with a fork, spoon or with the hands, until the butter thickens and the whey separates. Pieces of ice sometimes needed to be added if the weather was very hot. When the butter stuck to the sides of the pot, it is said to be "deaf" (Carranza-B).


Yogurt is a dairy product obtained from fermenting the milk. It has steadily grown in popularity since the start of the 1970s and is widely consumed, particularly by children. However, there are few references in the surveys conducted and in the bibliography consulted.