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Idiazábal is a small village located in the Goierri valley, in the heart of the Basque Region. It is surrounded by the large Aralar and Urbia mountain ranges. Each fall, with the first snow, farmers would descend from the mountain pastures with their flocks. At that time, an important farmers market would take place where smoked ewe's milk cheese would be sold. These cheeses were made during the summer in "txabolas", rural dwellings high in the mountains.

The name Idiazábal became known in the markets as being synonymous with Queso Vasco (Basque cheese). Normally this cheese is smoked with beechwood, hawthorn or cherry wood. An unsmoked version is also produced in the lower regions of the valley or in the area located in Navarra where there is no tradition of smoked cheeses.

Idiazábal is a robust and sharp cheese, made to be ripened for a long period. It is produced by farmers as well as industrially with well-defined characteristics: unpasteurized whole sheep’s milk from Lacha or Carranzana breeds, with high acidity and low fat, coagulated with natural young lambs' rennet giving it a slight piquant taste. Its dry and crumbly paste is a delight for those cheese lovers who like to "chew the cheese".

Labeled "Denominación de Origen Protegida" (D.O.P.)

  • Basque Country and in the province of Navarra, northwest of the city of Pamplona.
  • The manufacture of sheeps´ cheese is an integral part of the Basque Country culture, including both farmers and shepherds.
  • The Denomination of Origin for Idiazábal Cheese was created in 1987 and defines the basic regulations for the manufacture of the product. Only unpasteurized milk from latxa breed of sheep can be used, although in some cases the D.O. permits the use of milk from Carranzana breed, from the town of Encartaciones, in Vizcaya. The D.O. also stipulates that the milk be curdled with the natural curd from lamb, and permits external smoking of the cheese. The cheeses produced in the following towns in accordance with all the D.O. regulations, are therefore also protected by the Idiazábal D.O. : Urbia, Entzia, Gorbea, Orduńa, Urbasa and Aralar.
  • They are pressed cheeses, aged for a medium to long duration and are unsmoked. However, shepherd in the high mountains of Vizcaya do produce smoked cheeses. The smoking of Idiazábal cheeses evolved rather by accident, as shepherds in these areas did not have chimneys in their shelters.
  • The D.O. permits local variations that do not affect the general stipulation for the manufacture of Idiazábal. The D.O. expanded in 1989 to include the northwest of Navarra, its neighbour to the east, that produces the same type of cheese.
  • Today Idiazábal cheese is produced in well defined geographic locations. Some of the cheeses are made by industrial production based upon traditional methods, while artisanal cheese making is still widely used througout the entire region.
  Production process.
  • Idiazábal is an aged cheese, from semi-cured to cured, made exclusively from whole unpasteurized sheeps' milk. It is produced by strong enzimatic coagulation. The pressed paste can be either uncooked or semi-cooked. It can eventually be externally smoked.
  • The milk used to produce Idiazábal must be whole unpasteurized, from latxa breed of sheep, with a minimum of 6% fat. The milk coagulates at a temperature of 77 to 95 şF (25 to 35 şC), with the adition of natural lamb curd, resulting in a compact curdle after 30 to 45 minutes.
  • The curdle is cut in order to obtain rice-size grains, and then reheated to 34-38şC (93-100şF). In the case of coagulation at higher temperatures, the reheating temperature can reach 40 to 45şC (101 to 113şF). The reheated and shranken paste dehydrates and is placed in molds where it may or may not be seasoned before pressing.
  • The salting of che cheese is performed by rubbing the rind with dry salt, or by inmersing the cheese in highly salted water for 24 hours.
  • Finally the cheeses are aged under cold and humid conditions avoiding mold, for at least two months.
  • The optional smoking takes place at the end of the aging process, using woods from the beech-tree, birch-tree, cherry tree or white pine. The intensity of the smoked qualities depends upon the type of wood and length of smoking.
  • The cheeses are usually cylindrical in shape, although they are ocasionally cone- or octogonal-shaped. The rinds of highly artisanal cheeses may be engraved with drawings or simbols characteristic of the Basque culture.
  • The rind is closed, smoked, waxy, without mold. The unsmoked cheeses have a yellow-beige color, while smoked cheeses are brownish. The interior is compact, without air pockets or with only pin-head size holes, and is beige or pale yellow in color. The interior of the smoked cheeses has a brownish border. The taste is strong and pronounced, sligthly acidic and piquant, buttery and consistent, with a caracteristic sheep milk flavor. The smoked version is somewhat dryer and stronger, with a pleasant aroma. The size of every cheese ranges from small to medium, with weights between 2 and 4 lb. (1 to 2 Kg.)


  • With its strong an powerful taste, it is the most famous Basque cheese.
  • It is the perfect complement for barbequed or grilled meats.
  • It is also perfect melted on hamburgers.
  • Either cubed or grated it adds an interesting contrast to salads.
  • It is also recommended served over salted crackers or toasted bread.
  • It is best matched with a full bodied wine.
  • The combination with sherry Palo Cortado dampens the insistent piquency of the cheese, causing sensations that are pleasant and harmonious.

Loin of Beef with Smoked Idiazábal Cheese

Serves 4:

800 gr (2 lb.) loin of beef
1/4 liter (1 cup) concentrated beef stock
100 gr (1/4 lb.) raisins
200 gr (1/2 lb.) smoked Idiazábal cheese
1 glass of herb eau-de-vie
4 cooking apples
Salt and pepper
Olive oil
Mache (or watercress)

Soak the raisins in the herb eau-de-vie for half an hour before use. Remove the rind from the cheese. Cut the cheese into pieces and melt in a double saucepan over a medium heat with the brandy and a little of the stock, stirring all the time while adding more stock until a thick cream forms (about 10 minutes taking care that the cheese does not separate).
Put the sauce through a fine sieve and add the raisins. Brush the beef with oil and place in an iron frying pan over a medium heat. Sprinkle the top surface with plenty of rock salt and leave to cook on one side for 20 minutes.
Remove the salt with a spatula, turn over and place salt on the other side. Again leave to cook over a medium heat for 15 minutes. Remove the salt and cut into thick slices . Peel the apples, cut into wedges and brown in oil. Serve the meat with the sauce, the apple pieces and a few leaves of Mache or watercress.

Recommended wine: Red Reserva D.O. La Rioja.

Where to find Spanish Cheeses in USA Most of the Gourmet Food Stores in the US carry some or most of the best Spanish Cheeses.

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