Innovation isn’t a word I associate with Basque cheesemakers, but the sublime sheep’s-milk Arpea is reason to rethink that. Created about three years ago by the Fromagerie Agour, in France's Pays Basque, Arpea resembles no other Basque cheese I know. A small, semisoft disk from an area known almost exclusively for hard aged wheels, it represents new thinking in this tradition-bound region.
Peio Etxeleku, Arpea’s creator, inherited the risk-taking genes from his father. Thirty-five years ago, Jean Etxeleku started Agour with next-to-no money, just a pledge to the local shepherds that if they entrusted their milk to him, he would build a cheese plant and repay them when he sold the cheese. For three years, the shepherds were his bankers.
Agour produced traditional Ossau-Iraty initially, and still does, but Etxeleku’s innovation was Petit Agour, a small-format version. (P’tit Basque, from the dairy giant Lactalis, came later.) Now Peio has assumed the reins and is demonstrating his own talent for invention. About five years ago, Agour opened a second creamery in the mountains, to be closer to the shepherds, so their milk wouldn’t have to travel so far.
Arpea, named for the Basque word for grotto, required two years of development. Made with pasteurized sheep’s milk and matured for only two weeks, the cheese weighs about 1-1/2 pounds. It has a thin, crunchy, brine-washed rind. The bone-colored interior is supple and smooth, with several small openings and an inviting aroma. I get hints of garlic and celery and green vegetable. A second sample, clearly more mature than the one pictured above, had a harder rind, a firmer texture and a nutty aroma. The younger cheese was more vegetal, the older one more sweet, but both were hard to stop eating.
In Northern California, look for Arpea at Haight Street Market, Noriega Produce, Spanish Table and Union Larder in San Francisco; Oliver’s Market (multiple North Bay locations); Country Cheese Coffee Market in Berkeley; New Leaf Market in Felton; Big John’s Market in Healdsburg; Oxbow Cheese Merchant in Napa; Market Hall Foods in Oakland; and Sutter Creek Cheese Shop in Sutter Creek. At just over $20 a pound, it’s very well priced. An earthy California Syrah makes a good accompaniment.