The Man returned from a recent trip to the store and announced he had some sheep milk cheese. Even before he pulled it out of the bag, I could smell it. Salty, warm, old, dry, definitely ‘of the earth and soil’. This was not just a sheep milk cheese. This was Roncal.
It comes from the Navarre region in Northern Spain, an area that is as rife with extremes as this cheese is. The tiny territory has high, dry mountains, as well as deep, fertile valleys. The peoples range from Trans-Pyrenean Roman roots, touchy Basque communities, and convivial Mediterranean farmers.
These extremes are perfectly reflected in this cheese that gained regionally protected status. It can only be called Roncal if it is made here. Like the land and people, this cheese is at the same time oily and dry. Salty and subtly sweet. Tough to chop but easy to gently break. It comes from sheep who are hairy and unpredictable as goats, but somewhat more docile and drowsy. But you can still taste the fur, the warm press of bodies, and the green, moist feed.
I can’t help of think of an art project back in high school. We had to reproduce a portrait by a famous artist. I chose a self-portrait by Goya, not knowing anything about him except that I was drawn to the conflicted look on his face. If this cheese was a person, I imagine it as an older Spanish artist like him. Once young and passionate, but aged into an introspective character, riddled with opposing and undecided opinions.
The first notes from Roncal are on the nose, an saltiness that is animal and earth. Then is the layer of oils sweated from the hard, wax-like cheese. A knife is met with resistance, but it flakes like a soft granite under you bare fingers. The dark rind looks almost dirty. As if it was a rock in a cave for decades. But beneath the animal brine flavors, runs sweeping strokes of sweet butter, nutty warmth, and a gentle almond finish. It would be best crumbled and paired with a simple flat bread, maybe a mild mustard, and olives or asparagus. Drink a Spanish red wine with it, a Rioja or a strong tempranillo.
This artesian cheese can be found under several labels from a shop that offers specialty cheese. You can expect to pay anywhere from $18 to $30 per pound. It varies from semi-firm to hard, and varies from off-white to dark almond. The rind is thick and hard, often appearing dark and dirty.
Like Goya, this cheese is not for a pretty dinner party where you chat about celebrity gossip and cosmetic surgery. If you are serving anything you made from a recipe from Martha Stewart, you don’t need this cheese. If you are offering your guests finger bowls, you don’t want this cheese. This is for late evenings with friends on your back patoi, drinking wine and beer, and sharing from a loaf of bread and a bowl of olives.