It would be impossible to name a favorite cheese, but a favorite style? That’s easy. Aged sheep’s milk cheeses---from anywhere—are the ones that disappear first at my house. They get more savory as they mature, not sweeter, so they’re like salted peanuts to me. One bite and I need another. Good news for like minds: we have a new cheese to love.
Secret de Compostelle isn’t new exactly; the creamery developed it about a decade ago. (It’s French, so say suh-cray). But distribution has improved over the last couple of years, so it’s turning up in more places. If you want it, ask for it.
Compostelle is French, of course, for the Spanish city of Santiago de Compostela, a Christian pilgrimage site for the past thousand years. It still draws 250,000 pilgrims annually to visit the cathedral and presumed tomb of St. James. One popular French route begins in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, in the Basque country, and ends 475 miles later in Santiago. You would want some cheese for that hike.
Online, you can find images of a whole nine-pound wheel of Secret de Compostelle with label intact. The label art shows a sandal-footed pilgrim with walking stick, a sheep, a cathedral and four scallop shells, a symbol that guides travelers along the route.
What is a pilgrim doing on this cheese? Well, a new cheese needs a back story, especially if it’s similar to others made in the region. Fromagerie Agour, the Basque-owned creamery that makes Secret de Compostelle, is referencing centuries of open passage between the pays Basque and Spain (no wall!), as devout pilgrims crossed the Pyrenees in both directions, sharing cheese recipes and techniques.
The milk comes largely from French farms near the creamery in Hélette, in the heart of the pays Basque, near the Spanish border. When local supply is low, the creamery may purchase milk from the Spanish side of the Pyrenees, but the notion (widespread online) that the cheese is made with Spanish milk is a myth.
Secret de Compostelle is like a sibling to Ossau-Iraty and Abbaye de Belloc, two iconic Basque cheeses. Ossau-Iraty is a PDO cheese (protected designation of origin) so the milk comes from a defined zone. Secret de Compostelle relies on pasteurized milk from outside that zone, so although the recipe is similar, the name has to change.
Secret de Compostelle has a natural rind with plenty of colorful microbial life. Inside, it is firm and the color of pale butter, the aroma distinctly nutty with a hint of sour cream. The texture is silky, especially if you shave it with a cheese plane. I find no dryness or granularity despite a maturation of seven to eight months, almost twice as long as the Ossau-Iraty minimum. Like its siblings, it merges sweetness, salt and savory depth into a flavor experience that I find irresistible.
Pour a medium- to high-intensity red wine with Secret de Compostelle. Cabernet Sauvignon works. So do nutty wines like amontillado sherry or Madeira. Look for the cheese at these retailers.
Yogurt: make it, love it, use it! Join me on Thursday evening, December 1, at Napa’s Silverado Cooking School for a deep dive into this luscious and health-promoting dairy product. I’ll demonstrate my preferred method for making yogurt at home, then we’ll get to work and make our dinner, start to finish. A hands-on class for a maximum of 14 students. Reserve now.
- Rich and Creamy Homemade Yogurt
- Chicken Soup with Toasted Pasta, Chickpeas and Yogurt
- Warm Grated Carrot and Yogurt Salad with Cumin
- Lamb Meatballs in Warm Yogurt Sauce with Sizzling Red Pepper Butter
- Roasted Butternut Squash with Yogurt and Toasted Pumpkin Seeds
- Absinthe’s Golden Yogurt Cake with Yogurt Cream