Name: Pyrenees Ossau Vielle
Producer: Various (Pyrenees Mountains, France)
Milk: Raw Sheep
Age: 3+ months
It was once said, and repeated numerous times by Max McCalman, master fromager for Artisanal, that sheep's milk makes superior cheese. This could be traced to the fact that sheep produce less milk and, therefore, the milk they produce is more concentrated. But, I think it's all about the fat content.
As anyone who has eaten anything from duck confit to a thick hamburger can attest to, fat simply tastes good. At almost double the fat content of cow's milk, sheep's milk is practically swimming in that luscious compound. Because of this, when faced with a customer having a difficult time choosing from the bounty of selections before them, I often start with a mature sheep's cheese. More often than not, that cheese is part of the Pyrenees family.
Called by many names, depending on the producer and age, Pyrenees Ossau Vielle, like many French cheeses, is more the name of the production area (in this case, the Ossau Valley in the French Pyrenees) than the cheese itself. Like most mountainous regions, the Ossau Valley is an area where, while occasional cows do appear, the robust sheep completely dominates the land.
This hard mountain life must be good for the milk. Pyrenees Ossau Vielle is layered with a multitude of flavors. It starts with a Gruyere-like sweetness, builds to nutty, and tops off with a hit of sharp acidity before cascading down with an earthy and lightly grassy whoosh. This is a rollercoaster of a cheese. As it ages, the cheese also changes texture, developing calcium crystals that result in a slight pleasant crunch, similar to what you find in a well-aged Gouda.
How do I like my Ossau Vielle? To be perfectly honest, not with beer, and not with wine (though it will match perfectly with a wide variety of low-tannin reds). I like to eat this cheese without any accoutrements, fancy or otherwise, but simply cut into chunks and savored after dinner. In fact, there is probably no cheese I've snacked on more during my time as a cheesemonger than this one, and none more deserving of it.
Pyrenees Ossau Vielle is also commonly known as: Ossau-Iraty, Prince de Claverolle and Etorki. Murray's Cheese has it for $21.99/lb, as well as a younger, milder version Pyrenees Brebisfor $16.99/lb. Artisanal sell it as Ossau Iraty for $25.50/lb. It's sold under the same name for $17.99/lb at iGourmet, as well.