Idiazabal: A story of two smoked cheeses
I was fourteen the first time I tried a smoked cheese. It was a gouda and belonged to my friend's parents who were known for enjoying "cultured" and bohemian activities like going to plays, drinking wine they made themselves, and, my friend told me, even keeping something that may have been marijuana-related in a wooden box under their bed. It was a very exciting night.
We were sitting on a blanket at a Shakespeare in the Park performance the evening of my smoked cheese introduction. When my friend's parents withdrew the delight from our picnic basket while we waiting for Taming of the Shrew to start, I was elated. I first knew it was important based just on its looks alone. It looked nothing like the white cheddars or goat cheeses my parents stocked in our fridge. This one was encased and protected in a bright red rubber coating. And it was European- the label said.
Then I tasted it. Though it was semi-soft, it had a creamy texture that dissolved on my tongue and tasted lightly sweet. It also tasted like smoke. A lot like smoke. Maybe even more like smoke than cheese, which I was pretty sure was a flag of European distinction to which my untrained American palate would later familiarize. To the amazement of my hosts, I finished most of the wedge myself, spreading it over water crackers with the pocket knife that we also used to slice the Pepperidge Farm salami.
Years later I realized that the cheese I savored that night was flavored with liquid smoke. It was the gouda of my childhood. It was, well, not officially gouda either. But, and perhaps also because I sneaked a sip of wine or two from my friend's mother's plastic wine glass that night, that evening still rang as success to me- even years later when I learned of the mass production methods of making that style of cheese for easily charmed Americans such as myself.
Now, however, I'm a little pickier about smoked cheese (not my plays though, sign me up for Midsummer's Nights Dream any night). Now I find that the subtleness of the smoked flavor is often proportional to the cheese's deliciousness.
Idiazabal is one of my top smoked cheese choices. Truth be told, it pays to taste around on this Spanish Basque beauty. Some shops sell ones that taste like they've been smoked in an incinerator- others like they've merely walked past a campfire. I get mine from Cowgirl Creamery (they often ship), who imports a smaller production one than many stores carry, crafted by one producer.
Made from the especially rich raw milk of Latxa sheep, this Idiazabal is layered. It tastes of butter, a little of the Provencal luque olive, and a smattering of herbs. Then there's the subtle flavor of the the beechwood over which its smoked.
I love this on its own, with olives, or fig jam. If you're feeling handy with the knife and have a lot of Idiazabal on hand, chop the cheese into small cubes and marinate with extra virgin olive oil, rosemary, thyme, and crushed whole garlic cloves. It's a perfect appetizer to munch with a glass of dry sherry while cooking dinner.
Have you tried a subtle Idiazabal before? A strong one? What's your favorite smoked cheese?