Jean Francois and Marie Helene Nouqueret live in Pyrenean village of Lescun at the head of the Aspe valley, a village surrounded by the high peaks of the dramatic Cirque de Lescun that form the border with Spain.
Today Lescun has just 180 inhabitants but in the 19th century it was a busy base for cheese production. The pasture of the glacial bowl where Lescun sits is perfect for cheese making: it is rich with alpine milk vetch (that’s wild liquorice or reglisse in french) and alpine clover both of which give the cheese a hint of hazelnut, wild thyme and other herbs.
So fertile is this land that the shepherds around Lescun can cut hay 3 times, the first cut generally in May and the 2nd and 3rd cuts (called the regain in French, it’s the rich, herby hay the animals like the best) later in the summer.
Jean Francois farms 160 Basco Béearnaise sheep and 12 Abondance cows (to make his fromage mixte) and between December and June he makes about 30 wheels of cheese a week. His 87 year old father still looks after the land and his mother sells the cheese from their front door during the summer months.
Together we squeezed into the tiny, pristine dairy and watched Jean-Francois making his cheese, heating the milk over a simple gas burner. In the photo you can see the way he uses traditional long metal needles inserted into the curd help drain it of whey. We talked about the problems of making this very special cheese and what the future holds for shepherds like him.
Ossau Iraty AOC, the other cheese made in the area, is a modern cheese that was invented in the late 70s when Roquefort producers pulled out of the Pyrenees. Industrial fromageries stepped in and said that they would buy the excess milk but part of the deal was to be the creation of a new AOC for the area and Ossau Iraty was born. It has become a big business cheese generally made with an artificial rind, artificial starters and pasteurised milk from the Lacaune sheep whose annual yield has increased over 400% in the past 40 years. There is very little artisan Ossau Iraty made now and even less fromage de brebis as shepherds like Jean Francois struggle to compete with this kind of production.
When it is in season, Brebis Fermier is available to buy online.