It’s a credit to the people and places of northern Spain to report that even though I had my backpack robbed on a recent trip to that region, my visit was nonetheless fantastic. One of the best foreign forays I’ve ever had.
Of course I did have a couple of wretched days in Barcelona dealing with the sudden kidnap of my valuables—passport, new laptop, cash, jewelry, chargers, art supplies, and more. But being forced to “get on with it,” (as my sensible Scottish mum would say) I took my apprehensive self back out into the streets of the city. And I found, to my great surprise, a place that was almost instantly healing. I crossed the threshold of Casa Batllo, a tourist landmark, bearing my victimhood, pissed off at people who are predators; I left beaming, feeling glad to be a part of this great creative human race. That’s the transforming effect that Casa Batllo at 43 Passeig de Gracia, built by architect Antoni Gaudi, can have on a person. To be inside this casa is to be inside Gaudi’s vast and courageous imagination.
But what does this have to do with cheese?! Nothing really, except that it was cheese that got me to Spain in the first place. As a judge for the Lactium 2011 event held in the Catalonian town of Vic, I was part of team of international cheese folk assembled to choose the year’s best cheese of the region. The judging is part of a very well organized two-day cheese festival in Vic that draws Spanish producers and people from all over Catalonia. The 150-plus cheeses showed a wide range of flavors, milks, and ages; textures were generally dense and firm, in the style of ever-popular Garrotxa and Manchego. But with artisan cheesemaking on the rise in this region, new soft washed rinds and mold-ripened varieties are turning up too. I also tasted some luscious raw milk blues—less aggressive than the Spanish standard bearer, Cabrales, but forthright cheeses in their own creamy way. The Lactium 2011 Gold winner—Serrat Corroncui—turned out to be a relatively new cheese made by Salvador Maura Rayo, a man who quit his desk job ten years ago and decided to pursue his dream of cheesemaking. His Serrat was a 3- to 6-month old raw sheep’s milk cheese that had the pliant, smooth texture of a young cheese but the flavor spectrum of an aged wheel—buttery, lactic, tangy, and mushroomy. All of Rayo’s cheeses, I discovered at his booth, had a refinement that was unique among the Catalonian selection. Lucky for us American consumers, importer Michelle Buster of Forever Cheese brings some of Rayo’s treasures to the US. They’re worth seeking out. Here is a video of the winner and photos of other sightings at Lactium.