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A Cheesemonger Travels to Spain to See How Manchego is Made

Take 5: Highlighting the apprenticeship “breaks” of cheese industry pros

In this ongoing series, culture profiles folks in the cheese industry expanding their expertise and gaining diverse experience beyond their time behind the counter or at a vat. 

Austin Banach, cheesemonger and department manager at Guido’s Fresh Marketplace in Great Barrington Mass., took a two-week hiatus from his everyday life behind the counter to travel to Spain and learn how one of the most famous cheeses in the world is produced. Banach was awarded the Essex St Manchego 1605 internship, which gave him the opportunity to trace the production of Manchego 1605 from start to finish. Read about his once-in-a-lifetime experience below:

“The internship started in Madrid for the first week and I served as one of the first American judges for the annual Spanish Cheese Judging and Exposition Gourmet Quesos. I was sitting in a room of Spain’s  leading cheese experts as we inspected and tasted various cheeses from all over Spain. Next, I toured Madrid, markets and cheese shops with Darío Lladó, sales manager for Finca Sierra la Solana, and even got the chance to work at ‘Qava’ a cheese and wine bar owned by the renowned Spanish cheese selector and affineur, José Luis Martin. My mongering skills and language skills were really put to the test as I helped a handful of customers buy cheeses.

I then spent the second week at Finca Sierra la Solana in Herencia, La Mancha learning about the farm, land, animals and cheesemaking process. Not long after arrival, I was handed a crisp white uniform and got to help mold the fresh warm and aromatic curds just made. It was a therapeutic break for all of my senses, especially after hustling around Madrid for the first week! I spent three days making cheese with a small talented crew led by head cheesemaker María José González-Román. I also learned a great deal about the maturation process and shipping details. 

 The cheesemaking team at Sierra la Solana led by María José (top row, second from left).

On the second day at Sierra la Solana, I was invited to partake in the batch selection process of Manchego 1605 for Essex St Cheese with José Luis Martin and Darío Lladó. We were guided through a sensory analysis class and even did a blind tasting with competitor Manchego. 

To finish the internship, the last day I accompanied the Shepherds for the morning milking and then to lead the herd of Manchega sheep through the picturesque fields of La Mancha. Here in the fields, I had time to rest under a marcona almond tree and meditate on the perfectly reverse engineered experience  that began at the cheese competition and ended in the fields with the shepherds and milking sheep.

The two weeks were a whirlwind, but it gave me such an in-depth view of not just the cheese, but the people, the culture, the terroir and the soul of Spain’s—and one of the world’s—most beloved cheeses.”

Culture Media (CM): What made you want to take a break from your daily life to participate in this internship?

Austin Banach (AB): I love to read and learn. I especially love all the stories of the people and places. One of my favorite books of all time is The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. It tells the tale of a young Spaniard boy being led by omens to live out his “personal legend” and to find his treasure. I always wanted to live out my wildest dreams of travel and adventures in cheese, so this was perhaps an “omen” to do so, and I certainly found “treasure” along the way. 

CM: What was an unexpected challenge you faced during the internship?

AB: My Spanish wasn’t the greatest so this proved to be my biggest challenge. But it’s amazing what a two-week submersion into a different country can do. By the end of the second week, I was appropriately rattling off Spanish idioms like Freir de esparragos (“get lost,” or literally, “go fry asparagus”) and Dar la vuelta a la tortilla (“turn the tortilla around”).

CM: What was your major takeaway from this experience? 

AB: Where do I begin!? Essex St Cheese and Sierra la Solana, who sponsored this trip, really made it clear that they not only wanted me to learn about Manchego 1605, but to truly experience this region of Spain with the culture, food, entertainment and daily life. They wanted me to soak up the Spanish sun and live like a Spaniard. I can say from the way the internship was planned and how everyone welcomed me, there will always be a huge part of Spain in my heart.

CM: How has this experience impacted your future career goals?

AB: It was a trip of a lifetime that I will continue to draw from for both my career and personal paths. I intend to spread not only the knowledge of Manchego and other Spanish cheeses, but to tell the stories of the producers, affineurs, cheese shop owners, and the small experiences that left an impression on me.  

CM: Did this internship change your overall view of the cheese/food industry at large?

AB: This trip was so powerful because it encompassed the entire journey of a cheese. From the sheep’s milk at the farm, to the cheesemaking facility, to the selection process for shipping, to the cheese shops in the city and finally to a national cheese competition for a chance for national (and potentially international) recognition.

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