Basque Country: Sampling Cheese, Wine And Tradition
Irene S. Levine
Even if you’re not eager to travel right now, it’s not too soon to think about future bucket list experiences.
Food and wine enthusiasts visiting the Basque Country in Northern Spain soon discover that Idiazabal cheese and Txakoli wine are two of the most iconic and easy-to-find regional products.
Idiazabal is a hard cheese made from unpasteurized sheep’s milk that has been aged for at least two months. Visitors often first sample the buttery cheese at one of many of the pintxo bars that line the narrow streets of Old Town in San Sebastian (Donostia, in Basque) but they are just as likely to savor it on a dessert plate (often served with quince and walnuts) at one of the fine dining establishments in the city.
Similarly, Txakoli—the region’s light, dry, sparkling wine—is usually poured (rather dramatically) from several feet above the glass at almost every restaurant and bar in San Sebastian since it pairs so well with the seafood that tends to dominate local menus.
Steeped in tradition, both are certified by the Spanish government as denominación de origen (Designation of Origin) products, an official recognition of their quality and well-defined place of geographical origin. All across Spain, locals take great pride in artisanal foods and wines like these that are uniquely associated with the history and culture of their respective regions.
Now, innovative tour operators like Naya Traveler are helping visitors connect more deeply with the land and people of Basque Country. This bespoke travel planner crafts itineraries to immerse travelers in unique hands-on experiences that shed light on the customs and traditions of culturally-rich destinations. To this end, it handpicks and vets tour guides and accommodations that can offer clients a true sense of place and an unforgettable experience.
Basque Country: A Concept Defined
The term “Basque Country” refers to the region along the Bay of Biscay on the Atlantic Ocean that straddles the border of northeastern Spain and southwestern France. Although not a country per se, it is the historical motherland of the Basque people, an autonomous community with its own language and culture.
Blessed with temperate weather and an abundance of rain (estimated at 160 days of year), its mountains, rivers, and fertile valleys were predominantly an agricultural mecca prior to industrialization. Because of its coastal location, it also has had a strong historical tie to the sea. Now, few farmers and fishermen remain.
The portion of Basque Country geographically located in Spain encompasses three provinces: Alava, Biscay and Gipuzkoa. Here, some small, family-owned farms and vineyards still dot the scenic countryside. In anticipation of our visit, my husband and I booked a day-long wine and cheese tour on the outskirts of San Sebastian that was arranged by Naya Traveler.
Savoring the cheese
As scheduled, our tour guide, San Sebastian-native Jon Galdos, picks us up at our hotel lobby at 9 AM for a one-day wine and cheese tour. Some twenty minutes later, we exit the highway and are traversing one-lane roads before our vehicle arrives in the bucolic hamlet of Mausitxa. Tucked between sweeping mountains, both the cheesery we are visiting and its renowned brand of Idiazabal cheese bear the same name as the town.
Some 900 indigenous, short-legged Latxa sheep graze on this farm. The breed’s oily coats produce a protective lanolin well-suited to the region’s rainy climate. Jon explains that the characteristic berets (txapelas) worn by the Basque are made from the same wool because like high-tech Gore-Tex, it is impervious to rain. He introduces us to Inaki Ansola, the eighth-generation owner of the family farm, who speaks in Basque.
Outgoing, well-educated and multilingual with an engaging sense of humor, Jon is not only adept at simultaneous translation but also remarkably knowledgeable about the terrain: He is an insider.
“My grandfather was a shepherd, not too far from here,” he explains. “And my father was born on his farm, riding a donkey to school until he was 12.”
He explains the reproductive cycle of the sheep and how the farm uses a system of grazing rotation, almost like that used with crops. A high point: We get to meet the sheep up close in their large pen in the stable, including babies who are suckling on their mothers.
The rigors of farming aren’t for the weak-hearted. Seven people work here each day, including Inaki’s wife and son. His son awakes to mechanically milk half the sheep at 7 AM each morning; the other half are milked at 7 PM in the evening. This translates into long, 13-15 hour days with precious few opportunities for leisure or time off. Diversification is essential to the sustainability of family farms so we also get to meet the large cows raised for beef.
Jon explains that it takes about a gallon of milk to create a pound of cheese. Rennet obtained from the stomach of the baby lambs is used to solidify the raw milk and enhance the taste of the final product. It takes two full days to make the cheese that is molded by hand with cloth and bathed in salt. The cheese has to be flipped to preserve its shape and can’t be sent to local markets and gourmet shops for at least two months. The farm produces some 15K cheese wheels a year, each one weighing about 2.2 pounds.
Before leaving, we are treated to a cheese tasting and like official judges, we are taught the criteria for evaluating the quality of Idiazabal cheese that include its shape, color, thinness of skin, visibility of holes, texture, smell and, of course, taste. Jesus and his team participate in 11 elimination-competitions each year that attract some 70-80 competitors. The first to win competitions in three consecutive years, he explains the details of the process and proudly points out the many awards displayed on the walls of the tasting room along with pictures of family.
Sipping the wines
Next, we’re off to the 176-year-old Talai Berri Winery, located on a rolling valley not far from the coast in the town of Zarautz. Here Jon introduces us to two young, female winemakers, Itziar and Onditz, the fifth generation to produce high-quality Txakoli wines from the fruits of their family vineyards. It doesn’t go unnoticed that he greets Itziar with a big hug, almost like family.
Built in 1992, the Talai Berry bodega (wine cellar) and vineyard—set on the terraced slopes of Monte Talai Mendi—grow two types of indigenous grapes, white Hondarribi Zuri and red Hondarribi Beltza grapes, on 12 hectares (almost 30 acres of land). Because the area is so rainy, the taller than usual vines are interspersed with patches of grass.
The building exterior resembles a traditional Basque country house with a red tile roof. Once we are inside, Onditz points out the oversized, decorative wood sculptures created by her artist uncle, who also has a hand in creating the brand’s wine labels.
The harvest, which takes place between October and November, is the busiest time of year. In February, the vines are bare, and the wines are bottled and ready for transport. Jon explains that a pneumatic press is used to extract the juice from the grapes because it is softer than a mechanical one. A decantation process cleans the wines followed by a single fermentation of 20-22 days. Like Portuguese Vinho Verde, Txakoli is not aged and is generally meant for consumption by the Christmas holidays.
Depending on the year, the small family winery produces some 90-100K bottles annually, mostly white. In a country with 52 different wine regions, and where a glass of wine is usually far cheaper than a glass of Coca Cola, these excellent wines, unique to the Basque Country, run on the expensive side (5-12€ a bottle) compared to other whites. Riesling-style bottles are used to export them to the States.
Jon explains that the women’s grandfather, Bixente Eizagirre, was the first to export their wines with the Getariako Txakolina Designation of Origin (DO) outside the Basque Country. In addition to the exports, Txakoli wines have become increasingly popular in other parts of Spain. From the delicate Hondarribi Beltza grapes, Talai Berri produces about 3000 bottles of red, Cabernet Franc-like wine each year. In even smaller quantities than that, they bottle a fresh rosé wine with high-acidity using an equal proportion of white and red grapes.
The latest generation is intent on blending tradition and environmental sustainability with emerging technology and creativity. Some of their newer products are displayed for purchase on a counter, including Txakoli wine vinegar, Orujo Distillate (a brandy) and the Txakoli Tinto (the red wine).
Onditz apologizes for holding our tasting inside rather than on the panoramic terrace outside but we’ve been stymied by another bout of the rains commonly experienced by off-season tourists. Although we miss the chance to walk through the vineyards, we have no complaints. We enjoy chatting with Onditz and Jon while we sip the wines, served with local tuna, anchovies, chili peppers, chorizo, olives and, of course, Idiazabal cheese. Low in alcohol content and high in acidity, Txakoli wines are a perfect complement to the zesty pintxos and small plates served in Basque Country.
Because he’s driving, Jon opts for water rather than wine and then, summarily rejects the delicious cheese. Why, we ask? “I was force-fed that cheese as my only dessert for my entire youth,” he says with a laugh.
Summing it up
Before heading back to San Sebastian and with the rains becoming more pounding, we take a quick jaunt through the medieval streets of Getaria. We catch a glimpse of its picturesque harbor with fishing boats that have long returned from their morning catch.
In one day, Naya Traveler has enabled us to meet Jon and some of the locals he knows who are carrying on the same Basque traditions as did generations before them.