Spain’s Select: at Poncelet, a Madrid monger offers a cheese course of Spain’s unsung favorites
Barcelona may get all the attention these days, but if you’re looking for Spain’s best food, head to Madrid. Madrileños are notoriously obsessed with ingredients, opining vociferously on everything from the freshness and type of dried beans for their cocido to the “best” museo del jamón. The city even claims the second largest fish market in the world, after Japan’s Tsujiki. What was missing until recently, however, was a world-class cheese store.
Enter Poncelet. Named for a market street in Paris that boasts Alléosse, one of the city’s finest cheese shops, Poncelet was started just four years ago by Jesús Pombo. He designed a modern but modest space just large enough to hold a few perfect specimens of 300-plus European farmhouse cheeses. “I wanted to create a space where the artisan cheesemakers are the true stars—where, through their cheeses, the consumer takes home something more than a simple nourishing product.” He works closely with a team of foragers spread throughout Europe, concentrating on artisan versions of DOP cheeses—or, as he puts it, cheese so good that they might as well have DOP designation. His selection is unmatched anywhere in the city.
To show the cheeses at their best, he displays only the perfectly ripe specimens on temperatureand humidity-controlled shelves lit by indirect light. The rest he holds in an aging room with individual chambers for the cheeses, so each can be raised according to its particular needs. Since great cheese deserves great accompaniments, he hired a house baker; Poncelet’s bread is considered by many to be the best in the city. A separate room offers everything from cutting boards to fig paste, quince jam, and wine.
That said, Poncelet’s most impressive achievement may be in arraying so many Spanish cheeses in one place. “We have cheeses most Spaniards have never even heard of,” Pombo says. Asked for an example of a cheese plate that would show off Spain’s cheese prowess without relying on Manchego and other spotlight-stealers, Pombo put together six that we can, with a little work, find in the U.S.—just enough to tide us over until we can get to Madrid.
At the store:
1. Queso Pasiego, o Las Garmillas
Pombo finds this young cheese, a small, soft disk of pasteurized cow’s milk cheese from Cantabria a good beginning to a cheese course. “It’s slightly sweet, a little salty, with a mild acid bite—ideal to start.”
This pyramid-shaped raw goat’s milk cheese from Catalunya was inspired by France’s Va- lençay, except this one includes a bit of black pepper mixed in with the ash that covers its surface. Pombo’s Pebrat is from a cheesemaker who has his own herd of cows. “His animals graze freely in the mountains there, and you can taste how it gives the cheese the flavors of mountain, like rockrose and thyme.”
3. Torta de la Serena
Not many people know this raw sheep’s milk cheese from Extremadura, because it’s been overshadowed by the region’s more famous Torta del Casar, but “Casar has nothing on it,” says Pombo. “Many people, in fact, prefer this one because it’s a little less bitter.” The ivory interior is soft, bordering on a thick liquid, with small, irregular holes. “The main differ- ence,” he says, “is that it’s coagulated with yerbacuajo [cardoon], which allows the milk to be cooked at a lower temperature and gives a creamier result.”
4. Idiazábal de Pastor Ahumado
From the País Vasco, this is made from the milk of the native Latxa and Carranzana sheep, which Pombo says particularly incorporates the flavor of what the animals grazed on. He thinks the best are made in May, when spring comes to the Basque mountains. In addition to the herb notes it picks up, the cheese often has a “woolly” flavor—it’s not shy about its sheepiness—and sharp acidity. The smoke (ahu- mado) is imperceptible in scent but adds what Pombo describes as “an elegance” to its flavor.
5. Mahón Artesano
Asked what Spanish cheese is most deserving of more attention, Pombo replies “Mahón” without hesitation. “Menorca makes excep- tional cheeses. Even the old Greek navigators recognized the wealth of cattle on the island; they called it Meloussa, “land of cattle.” A raw cow's milk cheese wrapped in linen, Mahón is typically aged four to six months, “but we like it aged more than a year—then it picks up flavors of butter and dried fruit and the most interesting leather notes,” the cheesemonger adds. “It almost reminds me of a Parmigiano Reggiano.”
This is one of the three blues named for its region—Cabrales in Asturias, El Picón Bejes- Tresviso in Cantabria, and Valdeón in Castilla- León. Pombo explains, “It’s the microclimate of the region that sets each cheese apart; this one is more lactic, with persistent primary aromas and the salty punch characteristic of blues . . . it’s pungent but not aggressive.”
some top sources of Spanish cheese in the U.S.:
Written by Tara Q. Thomas