Brebis d’Estive

Brebis Fermier is a creamy, sheep’s milk tomme made all the way up the Ossau, Baretous and Aspe valleys in Béarn. Brebis d’estive is made by farmers who continue the traditional transhumance of their animals during the summer months. On a given date in June, they walk their flock to high Pyrenean pastures and make their cheeses in mountain refuges until the end of September.

This seasonal moving of livestock has been practised all over Europe for thousands of years and probably goes back to the domestication of the animals themselves. In Béarn the reasons for it remain the same today: during the animal’s stay in the mountains the lower pastures can be cut up to 5 times over the summer to provide hay for the winter months thus enabling the farmers to keep a bigger flock.

On her family’s farm in Bescats we spent an afternoon talking to Severine Carriorbe who, at 25, is the youngest of the 46 Bearnaise shepherds who continue the transhumance. Hers involves 90 minutes in a lorry to the end of the road and then a 75 minute walk with her sheep to a cabin some 800ms below the Pic d’Ossau (2454m). There she has no electricity or hot running water and only very limited contact with her family. She gets up at 5am and spends 6 hours a day milking all the sheep by hand (3 hours in the morning and 3 in the evening) and 3 hours a day making cheese. Then there’s all the washing up and the care involved in looking after a 200 strong flock that needs shepherding to different pastures to graze. At 1600ms, nighttime temperatures plummet and thunderstorms are common. I doubt there are many 25-year-old girls who would take on such a responsibility.

Severine makes 3 cheeses a day that are transported down the mountain by mules and into one of the regional saloirs or aging rooms. The production is very small because the sheep are nearing the end of their milk cycle: at the end of September they stop producing milk altogether before lambing again at the start of November. Production is small but is still fabulous. And every single one of Severine’s cheeses that we tried was completely different: the rich biodiversity of the mountain meadows, the weather, a north or south facing pasture: all will have an effect on the milk and the final cheese itself.