Esquirrou, Grand Prize Winner 2018 World Cheese Championships
I am mad for cheese. It can come from anywhere, but my favorite ones originate from France, Italy and Spain. This spring Florence Fabricant wrote in the NYT’s Food Section about Esquirrou—a cheese from France’s Basque country—which had just won the World Cheese Championships, the largest international cheese, butter, and yogurt competition. Held in Madison, Wisconsin, the entries are technically evaluated by a panel of 56 internationally-renowned judges. Esquirrou (pronounced ehs-keer-oo), earned an impressive score of 98.376 out of 100 points fighting for its title against 3,402 other cheeses from around the world. What was astonishing to me, however, was that this was the first time a French cheese had ever won this distinction. Can you imagine?
As soon as I read Florence’s article, I was desperate to taste Esquirrou. As I was planning on a trip to Paris, I was determined to find it there, at the source, so to speak. One my first day there I asked for Esquirrou at my favorite cheese shop in the Marché d’Aligré in the 11th Arrondisement. To my shock, the merchant sneered and disdainfully replied, “All the Americans who come to my stand ask for this cheese. As this is a pasteurized cheese and we don’t work with cheeses like that, I suggest that you cherchez-le au supermarché, Madame.” Inferring that Esquirro was not made with raw milk and thus, was not up to his discriminating standards, I was told to go to my supermarket to look for it. I further assumed he also meant back in America!
Well, once back in New York, I did just that. José, the friendly cheese clerk at the Morton Williams supermarket in our hood, explained he had heard about this award-winning cheese but wasn’t carrying it yet. He offered to special order it and a week later he was slicing off a huge wedge for me. Anxious to try it, I left it out at room temperature for several hours, then served it that evening with a ripe pear and slices of baguette from Sullivan Bakery. It tasted as it was described on its label: “Underneath its amber rind lies a rich ivory paste with nutty notes and a toasted wheat aroma.” Florence called it “brioche” which is definitely a nicer descriptor.
I enjoyed the cheese so much that I went on a mission to find out more about it. Drilling down, I learned that Esquirrou is crafted by Maître-fromager Michel Touyarou for the Mauléon Fromagerie. He uses exclusively unpasteurized (raw) milk (au lait cru entier) which is sourced from farmers who raised in the Pyrenees mountains a breed of black and red-faced sheep called Basque-Bérnaise. Esquirrou is a washed-rind cheese which is aged for a minimum of 90 days. This amount of aging time legally permits the raw milk cheese to be exported into the US. But didn’t my Paris cheese-monger claim it was made from pasteurized milk?
Esquirro belongs to the Ossau-Iraty cheese category. Like Parmesan or Roquefort, other defined cheeses, Ossau-Iraty cheeses are made by different producers however they must follow a strict standard for production although slight variations in technique are permitted.
This award-winning cheese carries an AOP label. Not being familiar with what this meant, I went on line and found an excellent explanation on Jane Bertch’s informative website for her Paris cooking school (https://lacuisineparis.com/blog/understanding-french-food-labels). “Since 1 May 2009 cheese produced across the European Union has been awarded a new label - "Appellation d'Origine Protégée". Some cheeses that you might see the logo on are French Roquefort, Italian Parmigiano Reggiano and English Stilton. The new logo, as well as being easily recognizable throughout Europe, will also be a way of fighting counterfeit products, especially against producers who may attempt to use the name of labelled products.”
Esquirrou’s cheese maker recommends serving it with a condiment such as honey, quince paste, or a confit of onion. Pika Gorri, a local Basque specialty of cherries marinated in vinegar, is also suggested. For wine, go local again. While maybe not easy to find, seek out a dry white wine from the Irouléguy appellation. If your hunt is unsuccessful, a French-style (non-grassy) Sauvignon Blanc would make a nice match.
Esquirrou is imported by Savencia Cheese USA of New Holland, Pennsylvania. At Morton Williams it sells it for $30 a pound. It is also available at Dean & Deluca stores at a slightly higher price point.
Admittedly, I became a bit obsessed with this hunt for the winning cheese. But in the process I learned a great deal. Not only did I discover what the AOP label means, but I also realized—Sacré Bleu!—that even a Frenchman who sells only French cheeses, can be wrong. Actually, I am tempted to bring my Paris cheese vendor a slice of the raw milk Esquirro from my American supermarché so he can taste for himself how delicious the cheese is.