It has always been a dream of mine to travel and explore the beauty that the world has to offer. This is, however, my first time traveling out of the Americas. That being said I did not know what to expect from this trip. I have had friends and family members who have traveled to Europe and even Spain, and I have heard all of the glorious stories they told. But I knew that in order to truly understand what they were saying, I would need my own authentic experiences. Thanks to this study abroad trip I have been able to explore deeper into the beautiful country of Spain than I could on my own. With various group trips and immersive experiences, I have been able to get a sense of what life is like everyday for the Basque people.
With that said, one of our group excursions was to the little town of Idiazabal. This town is famous not only in the Basque Country, but surrounding countries, as well. This is because of the rich, delicious cheese that is all natural and wonderfully crafted. For generations, the Aranburu family has been gifting others with the production of their mouth watering cheese.
The trip began with one of the more scenic drives I have witnessed. Rolling green hills dotted with red tile roof houses and scattered livestock. The peaks and valleys were many and seemed to grow in magnitude the further we went. As we drove further into the rural parts of the Basque Country, the sense of traditional lifestyles was prominent. Upon entering the cheese factory, that is exactly what was displayed.
Professor Z has never taken his students on this specific excursion before, so this experience was going to be new for everyone involved. Some students had mixed feelings about learning how to make sheep cheese and spending the day inside a factory, but others were excited. I personally was interested because I knew that an experience like this is beautifully unusual, and it would shine a light on the intricate details of Basque history and culture.
Once the bus stopped and we stepped outside, the small town of Idiazabal was vastly different than the city we have become used to: San Sebastián. Little roads paved the way to fields and herds of livestock. In order to get to the factory, we had to walk up a hill, keeping our eyes open for my sign of this factory. We arrived at what we thought was the correct building and waited. Soon a man stumbled out, rubbing his eyes as if just waking from a nap. We were told to wait some more, so I took the time to take in my surroundings. It’s not often that you are located in a town like Idiazabal, one without the tourist scene and rush of everyday life. Life here was slower, more authentic and laid back. I couldn’t imagine a better place than that for some of the best cheese in the world to be made.
Once we were let inside, we were introduced to an old man who has been making cheese for his entire life. He showed us how cheese used to be made before there was technology, and it was fascinating. With a controlled temperature of sheep milk, a wooden spoon made from twigs, and a secret ingredient, cheese was made in front of our eyes. This secret ingredient was the stomach of a lamb that has only been fed milk its entire life. This makes for the purest stomach, and it even smells like cheese itself. Once the stomach is added to the milk, the small batch took roughly 30 minutes to start to solidify. During this time, we learned a lot about the process they use today with machines and many details about their specific history. There were many interesting facts we were able to pick up along the way, such as their relation to the famous wine family that is towns over who make the Txakoli wine. These two families account for so much of the culture within the Basque Country, and it was cool to see the connection.
Once we learned about the cheese, we were able to try it ourselves. We walked to the back of the factory through racks of cheese and machines to the table set up with samples. We tried 4 different kinds, which were regular, smoked, aged and smoked and aged. Each had a unique flavor, but the consensus best was the smoked cheese. We were shown how to eat the cheese, and as simple as it sounds, there is a technique. And if anyone knows how to eat cheese properly, it is these Basques. With the tasting done and our stomachs full of cheese, we headed out for a farewell picture and one last moment that was as cool as any. Jesús the cheesemaker let us in on a Basque handshake that was simple, yet personal. That moment to me was authentic as any and made me feel accepted by the Basque Country.