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Home Is Where the Cheese Shop Is

San Sebastián’s Smallest Cheese Shop is an Incubation for Inspiration

The cheese case at Elkano 1 Gaztagune.

I extended my stay in Donostia–San Sebastián, Spain, to visit a cheese shop I’d researched: Elkano 1 Gaztagune—a tiny space with a sizable variety of cheeses. I had recently befriended the shop’s cheesemonger, Cecilia Garmendia Torres (also a biologist and cheesemaker, formerly of Lamp Post Cheese in Lebanon, Ohio), and deemed it my kind of cheese shop when I spotted Quesos y Besos from Jaén and El Teyedu from Picos de Europa in Asturias.

Ramón Lizeaga, one of the greatest cheesemakers in Basque Country, opened Elkano 1 Gaztagune in April 2015 in hopes of making cheeses other than Idiazabal. In 2017, a few months after Iker Izeta Alberdi started working in the shop and became the owner, Lizeaga passed away. “Bitten by the cheese bug, [Alberdi] decided to take over—first the cheese shop, then the creamery,” Garmendia Torres tells me.

Alberdi mainly produces lactic cheeses and bloomy rinds with Latxa sheep’s milk in Aia, a small town located between San Sebastián and Getaria. His most sought-after cheeses are Ondarre and Bigel. The former is a lactic cheese with a wrinkly rind and “the paste is like whipped cream with a runny cream line under the rind,” says Garmendia Torres. Bigel is also known for its sultry, runny cream line that’s the “show of the shop”—a solid entertaining cheese. “The flavors are layered, vegetal, a little cooked cauliflower—but you can also taste the animal,” she adds.

Soft cheeses from Elkano 1 Gaztagune.

Elkano 1 is a magnet for chefs and restaurants; the shop helps select cheeses for dishes and cheese boards for a long list of standout establishments, including three Michelin-starred restaurants: Lasarte, Arzak, and Hiruzta Bodega (a winery where you can guzzle Txakoli, a sparkling dry white wine from Basque Country, alongside cheeses). I was lucky enough to sit down with Garmendia Torres for dinner one night at the cozy Geralds Bar, where an Elkano 1 cheese board barely touched the bar counter before I devoured it.

That evening, I learned the cheese world is a small world that often feels like home. “When I started my creamery in Ohio, I started researching what Spanish cheesemakers were doing,” says Garmendia Torres. “I found out about Ramón, unfortunately, after he’d just passed away, but I kept following Elkano 1 on social media,” she adds. “They are a small shop that cares about the local economy; they are closely connected to the producers and take pride in the cheeses selected.”

Devastatingly, Garmendia Torres had to shut down her creamery amidst the pandemic, but it prompted her move back to San Sebastián with her husband. A cheesemonger job at Elkano 1 presented itself, and because of her background, the team immediately welcomed her. “I enjoy learning from [Alberdi] about his cheesemaking practices—and enjoy that I can help him from time to time at the creamery,” she says. “I have realized that I enjoy selling cheese more than I thought.”

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