Fromagerie Écologique Agour Irati

The fromagerie is located high in the Irati valley so in a magnificently isolated bend in the road.

In April 2019, I had the opportunity to visit the Fromagerie Ecologique Agour Irati located high up foothills of the Basque Pyrenees. A quick word about Agour (I also noticed it spelled Agur, which I believe is in Euskera, the Basque language? You Euskera speakers, correct me if I am wrong). If you are a fan of French cheeses, and especially of Basque sheep milk cheeses, you have likely heard of Agour. They are the largest family run independent cheese maker in the French Basque countries and have been exporting to the U.S. for over 20 years. We have featured their lovely cheeses on the cheeses boards at Le Pichet and Cafe Presse for as long as they have been open.

Their principle fromagerie is in the town of Helette, near Espelette, in the foothills of the Pyrenees. There they make the traditional Basque sheep milk tomme know as Ossau Iraty and age it for up to 2 years. However, in recent years, the family began to fear the loss of the traditional methods of Basque cheese making as large international dairy companies moved into the region and sought buy out small producers. These corporations built giant cheese making facilities, purchased as much local milk as possible and standardized the methods of sheep raising on the farms from which they purchased. This meant that sheep began to spend little or no time in the rich mountain pastures of the Basque valleys and instead produced milk while living in barns and eating standardized feed.

While Agour continued to ask their farmers to work in the traditional way, they especially feared for the loss of the transhumance, the traditional practice of taking the sheep high into the mountains each summer where they can spend the day munching the lush carpet of grasses, herbs and flowers that grow there. The milk of sheep who feed in the mountain pastures is much richer, fattier and more flavorful than that of barn-fed sheep raised on fodder. And of course, this superior milk yields superior cheese.

It was a desire to save this tradition that led Agour to open their second (and much smaller) fromagerie high in the hills of Irati. As the fromagerie is much closer to the mountain pastures and to the little mountain cabins where the migrating shepherds daily milk their flock, Agour is now able to pass from from cabin to cabin in the hills, collecting the milk from many flocks each day…each night actually, as the best time to collect the milk is before dawn to insure absolute freshness. The milk is then taken to the fromagerie and made into cheese the same day.

So why Fromagerie Écologique? Concerned for the ecology of the valley (fresh air = better milk), Agour decided to build a fromagerie that was not only cutting edge in terms of hygiene (to comply with very strict French hygiene laws for raw milk cheeses) but that also included cutting edge energy technology that would make the facility carbon neutral. To this end, the fromagerie power is produced by modern low carbon wood fired generators that burn wood chips from trees and brush culled from the nearby forest of Irati in order to limit the possibility of forest fires. The small amount of carbon produced is offset each year through an aggressive tree planting program inaugurated by Agour.

Here are some photos from our visit.

The stunning beauty of the Irati valley surrounds the fromagerie
The fromagerie has a traditional look that fits with its surroundings, despite its design which integrated cutting edge technology
Our host for the visit was Maider Idieder, a member for the family that owns Agour and director of both its fromageries…and also very pregnant.
Cheese is made daily from milk gathered during the night. This cauldron holds enough milk to make about 60 5# cheeses
The molds used to form the Ossau Iraty cheese
Only cheeses made the traditional way according to a strict set of requirements may be called AOC Ossau Iraty. The sheep’s head image, pressed into the finished cheese, is the symbol of Ossau Iraty that bears the AOC. The hard earned sheep head forms, used to press the image into the cheese
After pressing, the cheeses spend time in a salt brine. This starts the formation of the natural rind and seasons the interior.
The cheeses are then aged for about a week before being moved to the larger aging cave at Helette to complete an aging that lasts between 4 months and 2 years.
The Fromagerie Ecologique produces a number of different cheeses as well as Ossau Iraty, including these small square sheep milk cheeses that will be surface ripened.
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