Café Presse chef de cuisine Patrick MacWhorter is just back from a week in the French Basque Countries, where he had his first taste of the marvelously varied culinary riches of that region. Despite the generally held belief among his co-workers that Pat spent the entire trip drinking and eating at the Fête de Bayonne (much more on that in a later post), he did in fact dedicate a large part of the trip to increasing his knowledge through visits to artisan producers.
It was an especially valuable experience for him to visit some of the artisans who’s products we serve at Le Pichet and Cafe Presse. One of these was the the Fromagerie Artisanale de Helette, whose cheese we receive in Seattle carrying the Agour label.
Pat toured the fromagerie, located in the tiny village of Helette in the foothills of the Pyrenees, in the company of director Peio Etchelecu, whose grandfather founded the business. The fromagerie produces a number of different cheeses (many of which are not available for import to the US), mainly from sheep’s milk but also a smaller amount of cow’s milk. Among the traditional sheep milk cheeses are are three that we feature from time to time on our cheese board, P’tit Agour, Agour brique, and the gem of Pyrenean cheeses, Ossau Iraty, which carries the distinction of an AOC.
According to Pat, the current fromagerie took shape around the family home built by his grandfather. This original house is still part of the fromagerie and a number of his grandfather’s hand-made cheese making tools are displayed in the modern facility as cherished relics.
Pat was especially impressed by the cheese aging vaults or caves, with their shelves made of ancient wood planks. Pat says that he loved the “feeling of being completely surrounded by cheese”. By the way, the use of wood shelves in aging not only adds a subtle flavor note to the finished cheeses, but also suppresses the development of bacteria in the cave by processes innate to the material (This trait of wood to naturally suppress the growth of bacteria is well understood by French chefs, who routinely prefer wood cutting boards over plastic).
After touring the fromagerie, Peio organized a picnic lunch for his guests that included a tasting of many of the cheeses they make. Included were the classic Pyrenees tomes and also some smaller cheeses, including one made with piment d’Espelette, the famous Basque dried pepper. Add to that some jambon de Bayonne, some crusty baguette and a good local wine and you have the quintessential Basque casse-croute.
Watch for more of Pat’s journey in upcoming posts.