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Farmstead Cheeses of Northern Spain

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Spain! I’ve been blinded by the blaring sun on a wheat-covered landscape; captivated by limestone rock formations; driven into a hallucinatory state by a lack of sleep caused by endless late-night dinners; and fallen hard and fast for the cheese. There’s something truly special happening in this country, and I don’t think it’s just the sleep deprivation talking.

I meet José Luis Yuste in the village of Coladilla in the mountains north of León. He’s driven by a philosophy: to produce everything – from the feed to the animals, the milk, and the cheese – himself. Not only does he make semicurado and curado cheeses with his cows’ and sheeps’ milks; he also makes yogurt and ice cream. Imagine: the guy who hands you your ice cream cone is the same guy who – later that day – tends the pasture that feeds the cows, who then produce the milk that makes the ice cream!

Yuste's aging cave; farmstead strawberry ice cream

Yuste’s aging cave; farmstead strawberry ice cream

Yuste’s philosophy is unique for another reason, too. When I ask if he wants to export his cheeses or seek a Denominación de Origen, he responds, “Why make things more complicated?” He explains that right now he’s grown his (still tiny) business to be as big as he wants it to be. His local customers support him because they know that his cheese is good. He sees no need to expand. And I understand; there’s less time spent on finding new markets and applying for quality labels and more time to relax by the fountain, eating ice cream cones with the friendly old villagers.

In Ambasmestas I meet Joaquin Villanueva Casado, who makes goat’s milk cheeses, yogurts, and chestnut cheesecakes. His ash-rubbed, mold-ripened Veigadarte could easily be mistaken for a French Bucheron. The fuzzy white log was likely inspired more by that French classic than by any traditional Bierzo cheese, but after tasting it, not even my French colleagues were complaining.

The high butterfat content of the local-breed Muriciano-Granadina goat’s milk gives Veigadarte a soft and fluffy texture that melts in your mouth like cheesecake. It’s also sold in fresh versions, which are infused with or rolled in creative flavor combinations like quince and pimiento. Casado designed his own homogenizer in order to mix in these ingredients, fluff up, and shape the fresh curd into logs.

Veigadarte cheeses

Veigadarte cheeses

Casado’s production is small, but everywhere there’s evidence of his innovation. Instead of adding salt to the curd or fresh cheeses, he adds it directly into the milk; this means that a substantial amount of salt is lost with the whey, but it still helps to give the final product just the right amount of subtle saltiness. Right now he’s in the process of designing a whole new refrigeration system so that he can add organic production (organic cheeses can’t be aged in the same room as conventional cheeses). He’s also an excellent businessman, producing the same cheeses in both raw and pasteurized versions so that he can export some to us Americans (thanks!). 

In Villerías de Campos, among wheat fields and pine nut forests, is a barn filled with sheep that remind me of pandas. The ancient Iberian Churra breed had almost gone extinct by the 20th century and would have disappeared if it weren’t for people like Mariano Paramio Antolin. Antolin had long been passionate about preserving the breed, but it wasn’t until the 1990s when his milk and lambing business was threatened that he pushed for their protection. That’s when he began to make Campos Goticos cheese. Churra sheep have a milk yield that’s between eight and ten times lower than that of most foreign dairy breeds, but Antolin counts on the milk for its high quality. Within one year of starting cheese production, Campos Goticos was already named the best sheep’s milk cheese in Europe.

Churra sheep; Antolin holding his Campos Goticos  cheese

Churra sheep; Antolin holding his Campos Goticos cheese

I’d never seen milking room that is so close to a cheese production facility; it’s adjacent, basically an extension of the make room. Convenient for Antolin, I thought, but is it heart-attack-inducing for the health regulators? Antolin says that his milk is regularly tested without a problem, and further explains this: when the milk comes out of the sheep, it’s clean. Most contamination happens in the transportation process. Sure, he could build his milking parlor fifty yards away, but then he’d have to transport the milk in buckets, and each bucket would be a potential source of contamination. His facility is designed to transform the milk within ten minutes, ensuring unparalleled freshness.

Instead of rubbing his aging cheese wheels with a commercial culture, Antolin lets them grow mold like crazy for sixty to seventy days until they look like hedgehogs. He rubs the surface occasionally to release the spores into the air, which then colonize the younger cheeses. In this way, he’s been developing a unique ecosystem of microflora in his aging cave. After this two-month growth period, he washes the mold off the surface of the wheels before moving them into another cave to finish aging, where, over the course of a year, they become more buttery and caramel-y. 

So what did I notice in Spain? Well, in places like France and Italy, cheesemakers often extol the importance of tradition. Cheesemaking practices, deeply intertwined with a particular village and community, are solidified under revered Protected Designations of Origin. Spain has its designations too, but the producers I met didn’t place as much emphasis on their importance. Instead, they seemed to focus more on combining tradition with innovation.

According to cookbook author Claudia Roden, during the Franco regime in the mid-1900s, regional cultures (with an emphasis on languages, dance, and cuisine) were suppressed and “artisan products discouraged in favor of industrial ones that could feed the population cheaply.” After the fall of the regime, people began to celebrate their regional heritage again, fighting to preserve the products that were almost lost.

This turbulent past didn’t wipe out regional products from the map, nor did it wipe out an appreciation for quality over quantity, but it may have exempted many products from enjoying the kind of traditional continuity that existed in France, for example. Maybe it’s this turbulence that drove Spaniards to become more active culinary innovators. Their modern-day chefs are leading the world in an avant-garde gastronomy. Roden points out that their dishes, while famous for innovation, still touch on traditional regional cuisines for inspiration.

That’s not to say these cheeses display the kind of experimentation found in the United States, where it sometimes feels like a race to see who can make the craziest cheese, but there’s a certain modesty in Spain – a more quiet focus on doing what one believes is best to create an exemplary product. These guys seem to know that there’s no need to speak loudly, to grow bigger, or to slap labels on the package. The best cheeses in the world speak for themselves. 

Other treasures of Castilla y Leon, clockwise from top left: cured goat's meat 'cecina,' biodynamic olive trees; curing salchichon sausages; wheat fields behind Campos Goticos; traditional 'pan bregado,' horses in the Picos de Europa national park.

Other treasures of Castilla y Leon, clockwise from top left: cured goat’s meat cecina; biodynamic olive trees; curing salchichon sausages; wheat fields behind Campos Goticos; traditional pan bregado; horses in the Picos de Europa national park.

Photo Credit: All photos by Molly McDonough

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