Every year in June, around eighty shepherds from the three valleys of Bearn (Ossau, Aspe and Barétous) lead their flocks of sheeps to the rich mountain pastures on the French side of the Western Pyrenees.
For three months they live in small isolates stone huts, often difficult to access and produce traditional tomes: pressed raw milk cheeses which can weigh over five kilograms.
The sun-drenched pastures at an altitude between 900 and 2000 meters grow mountain flowers in an array of colors and aromas. Alpine clovers together with mountain thyme give the cheese a delicate nutty flavor.
Native sheep of the “Basque Bearn” breed are particularly well adapted to the mountain environment and provide all the sheep milk used for cheese making.
This is an age-old practice, though significant aid has funded the renewal of some cheese producing facilities in the last 10 years, allowing them to meet European hygiene regulations.
After aging at least four months in humid premises, the tomes assume an attractive beige-orange color. Their outstanding quality is due to the animals' natural diet, the skill of the shepherds, who make no more than two or three cheeses a day, and the slow carefully controlled aging.
These cheeses are soft and even after aging develop a delicate aroma of milk, nuts, mushrooms, vegetables, together with persistent flavor. The cheese from each mountain dairy is unique; the non-refrigerated milk keeps the pasture's microbial flora, which gives it a characteristic taste.
The shepherds have to be passionated to keep going this transhumance, to depend of nature's rhythms, to hand-milk and produce cheese for long hours, to conduct a 300 heads herd, to maintain summer mountain landscapes so appreciated and to adapt themselves to the isolation.
Production of these high-quality cheeses on mountain pastures cannot be taken for granted. There is always the possibility that producers will abandon the mountain dairies and work in the valley. With this comes the risk that these landscapes and the ancient cheese making knowledge linked to them could be lost forever.
Since 2008 products made in the mountains have full traceability, but unfortunately the Béarn Mountain pasture cheeses are not well known or promoted.
The Presidium aims to support the Association of Transhumant shepherds from the Three Valleys in a program to develop and promote these mountain pasture cheeses, seeking outstanding quality, maintaining authentic flavor and achieving greater recognition.
The Presidium production rules will ensure that all stages of processing will be completely traditional.
Photos — Dominique Julien, Oliver Porte
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