The Carranzana Cara Negra is an ancient Basque sheep with distinctive black head and legs. Its head shape is like that of a mountain sheep (typical of the oldest sheep breeds), its ears large and drooping. It is the subject of a breed recovery program: currently only 500 animals remain.
It is a very rustic breed, adapted to life in the green but remote mountain pastures in the province of Biscay. The animals are taken up into the mountains, at an altitude of about 800 meters, from early May. At the end of December they are brought down to the valley to give birth and wean the lambs, feeding on the surrounding pastures. During their long stay in alpine pastures they live completely free, only accompanied by a Basque sheepdog.
The sheep are milked twice a day to produce cheese, but only during the four months from April to August. Due to the focus on recovering the breed, cheese production has been delayed compared to other sheep breeds and it is intended to extend production through August, though at lower volume.
The raw milk from the Carranzana Cara Negra is used to make a traditional semi-aged cheese of small size and distinctive flavor. The curd, made using lamb’s rennet from the same breed, is put into molds by hand and salted with salt from the Salinas de Añana, a Basque Ark of Taste product. After a few hours the cheese is turned and salted on the other side. It is then washed with water and salt at eight day intervals.
Aging continues for a minimum of two months in a fan-ventilated room until the rind has a straw color. The flavor is more distinctive after aging four months, but the cheese eaten over the Christmas festivities is the one remembered by local people. The aged cheese has a height of 4 cm and diameter of 10 cm.
The cheese is traditionally sold directly to customers by producers who have established a dependable client base. But it is now also available at markets in the region and highly regarded by top Basque restaurants, keen to promote local products.
The few shepherds who have chosen to look after a flock of Carranzana Cara Negra, sometimes consisting of very few animals, have formed an association. Cheesemaking is in the hands of four very young producers, mostly women. Only one of them commercializes the cheese.
Las Encartaciones, Biscay Province, Basque Countries
Mariano Gómez Fernández