It’s hard to resist a cheese that you meet “from the inside” – at the ranch where it was made, among the sheep whose milk produced it, and from the hand the cheese-maker who crafted it. So maybe it was unavoidable that I would love Baserri, a Pyrenees-style sheep’s milk cheese made at Barinaga Ranch near Marshall, California.
But that’s the advantage of touring a creamery, there’s so much to fall in love with.
The sheep ranch is a “second-act” for Marcia Barinaga whose Basque grandfather came to the United States to herd sheep, ultimately owning a sheep ranch in Idaho. Her father grew up herding sheep, but left the ranch for a career in engineering. Barinaga herself was educated as a biologist and enjoyed a long career as a scientific journalist, before returning to her family’s shepherding – and cheese making — roots with the help of her Basque and American cousins.
Barinaga makes a classic Basque-by-way-of-West-Marin tomme-style sheep’s milk cheese in two sizes, Baserri (the Basque word for “house”), a 4-to-5-pound round, and Txiki (meaning “cute”), a two-pound tommette. The cheeses are similar to the cheese that is made in traditional Basque communities during the summer while their sheep are in the summer pastures producing milk. The cheese is stored and eaten through the fall and winter, and the process repeats itself the following spring when the ewes are fresh again.
Baserri is mild and creamy; a little bit nutty, a little bit sweet, and firm enough to grate. Sheep’s milk is sweeter than cow’s milk, and lacks the sharp tang of goat’s milk, so if you are wary of cheeses that pack a wallop, Baserri and Txiki are a good cheeses to sample.
Barinaga’s Baserri and Txiki are available here in Berkeley at The Pasta Shop (in Rockridge Market Hall and on Fourth Street) and The Cheese Board Collective; both shops will offer you a taste of the cheese before you buy, so be sure to ask.
Barinaga also makes lamb sausages (bratwurst, Italian and Merguez) which are currently available only at Cheese Plus in San Francisco, but will be coming soon to their farmer’s market outlets – watch the website for updates.
Barinaga Ranch is not open to the public, nor are they able to offer tours, but you may follow the life of the ranch at their excellent and informative website, which includes wonderful photographs of the ranch and the sheep, a blog, news, and product information.
Baserri and Brat’ Scalloped Potatoes
I couldn’t resist the opportunity to try Barinaga’s lamb bratwurst, but you could substitute a classic Merguez sausage (Scott Brennan of The Fifth Quarter makes a great Merguez – get it at the Kensington Sunday Farmer’s Market) in this recipe. The cream marries the sweet, nutty flavor of the Baserri and the meaty drippings from the sausage to the potatoes, and the starchy russet potatoes thicken the cream to a luxurious, velvety consistency.
This recipe serves about four people.
- 1-pound Barinaga lamb bratwurst (or traditional Merguez sausages)
- 2 pounds russet potatoes, peeled and sliced into 1/4-inch rounds
- 2 cups heavy cream
- 1/2 cup chopped onion
- 6 ounces Barinaga Baserri or Txiki cheese, grated
- salt to taste
- Preheat the oven to 350F.
- Scald the cream.
- Arrange half of the sliced potatoes in the bottom of a 2-quart casserole that has been buttered, or coated with non-stick cooking spray.
- Scatter the chopped onions evenly over the potatoes; pour half of the hot cream over the potatoes and chopped onion. Scatter half of the grated cheese over the potato/onion/cream layer.
- Cover with the remaining potatoes; pour the remaining cream over the potatoes. Layer the cheese evenly over the top of the casserole, and place the bratwurst (or Merguez sausage) on top of the cheese.
- Cover with foil and bake for one hour.
- Remove the foil and bake, uncovered, for another 20-30 minutes until the cheese is golden and the sausage browned.
- Let the casserole rest for about 20 minutes before serving.