When I met Rubén Valbuena in Spain in the fall of 2022, I couldn’t believe this was the first I was hearing about him. Rubén has been disrupting the Spanish cheese industry from just about every angle—ideation, production, sales, service, exports—since the mid-aughts, and it’s safe to say the scene is now unrecognizable from when he joined it.
Rubén and his wife Asela were working abroad as ecology consultants studying climate change disasters for the United Nations when they first caught the cheese bug. (Their three daughters were born in Brazil, the Dominican Republic, and France, respectively.) When Rubén’s sister married into a third-generation heritage Castellana sheep farm back home, providing an easy milk source, he knew it was time to come back and try his hand at cheesemaking. He bought a plot of land, dubbed it Cantagrullas, and set about building the property up from scratch. Rubén planted 3,000 drought-resistant acorn trees and erected a stone cheese smoking hut, a tiny church for Asela, and a modest home for his family with picture windows to make it feel bigger. He wanted to craft cheeses like the ones he’d learned about in his travels—French, German, and English styles that, he says, Spanish customers didn’t understand at first. He opened his first cheese shop (Quesería Cultivo) in Madrid in 2014, hoping that interacting with customers would help sell these unfamiliar styles, and the gamble paid off—there are now three Quesería Cultivos in Madrid, and shops like it opening all over Spain. To satisfy the growing demand for cheese, Rubén started a wholesale business in 2015, then an export business in 2018. He has traveled to London to learn from Jason Hinds at Neal’s Yard Dairy, and developed custom makes for world-renowned chefs who spend days at Cantagrullas designing bespoke wheels.
Rubén is always willing to consult with shops, mongers, or makers looking to do weird things with cheese, and feels strongly that a rising tide lifts all boats. Stoic and quiet with a sly smile, he takes a humble stance toward all he’s accomplished at the age of 41. Standing outside Cantagrullas, Rubén’s export manager Begoña Medio said to me: “Many of the best cheeses in Spain have been created inside that place, but he never says anything.” Rubén has his sights set on something bigger—namely, pushing the Spanish cheese world beyond Manchego, and getting the rest of the world to take notice. He wants Spanish cheeses to occupy a similar space in the global culture as, say, cheese from France or Italy. At one point in our visit, he turned to me and said, “Do you think we can do it?” To which I answered honestly: “If not you, who?”
Culture Magazine (CM): How did you become interested in cheese?
Rubén Valbuena (RV): I had my first experience with the world of cheese in the Amazon, in Ilha do Ituquí, where I was doing fieldwork interviews for my doctoral thesis. There, interviewing farmers who used the surplus milk from the milking of their zebu cows and buffaloes to make cheese, I was able to see how they made a spun paste cheese that withstood the absence of cold and the trip to the centers of consumption. That process really caught my attention. However, what really captivated me were experiences at the farmers’ markets in Rennes and visits to cheesemakers in the French region of Ille-et-Vilaine. The know-how of those producers and the value that the locals and visitors gave to the fruit of the artisans’ efforts convinced me to enter this world.
CM: And how did you learn to make and sell cheese?
RV: There were two [cheesemakers] who welcomed me into their homes and taught me much of the knowledge they had. Roland Lécrivain, farmer of Froment de Leon cows, and Louis Lorant, farmer of Lacaune sheep. Both neighbors in the rural area near Rennes, they had the patience to receive a Spaniard with a very strong accent to show him the good work they had been perfecting. They are largely responsible for the excitement and passion I feel for the world of cheese. I learned many things from them, from respect for animals; to the basics of sustainable agricultural and livestock production; the parameters for the production of quality milk; the technological bases for the production of fermented milk, butter and different cheeses; and some techniques to market the products. [It was] a real university master’s degree that lasted about a year, and that has been one of the best experiences of my life.
CM: How has your own production evolved since you opened Cantagrullas? I know you started with more varieties than you make now.
AM: Initially, we processed a very small amount of raw sheep’s milk. Our production was 25,000 liters of milk per year, which were converted into different cheeses: small lactic cheeses with different formats and rinds, soft cheeses with different types of refining, pressed cheeses, large formats, and blue cheeses. This model required many hands in the cheese factory, meticulous organization and strict work protocols, and an excessive effort in marketing and customer service. It was a period of enormous learning in which we were able to make ourselves known throughout Spain. Now, we are processing about 120,000 liters of raw sheep’s milk, …[but] we have significantly reduced the number of [varieties] we produce.
CM: You also now export a wide range of cheeses from a variety of makers, from an old-fashioned PDO Picón maker in the mountains, to innovators like Rey Silo or organic cheese factory Quesos La Vega. How do you find the makers you work with?
AM: Granja Cantagrullas has become a humble pilgrimage center for cheesemakers. Hosting so many cheesemakers has given us the opportunity to meet many people and to develop a very accurate image of the Spanish cheese scene. It has also helped us to launch Quesería Cultivo. We have been able to discover projects [like this one] with decades of experience, find more recent and innovative ones, and actively participate in others from conception to development. Little by little, we are creating a network of dairies with similar values and philosophies that share common interests. It is a community that allows us to share information and grow at a faster pace than we could do individually.
CM: I know you’re also passionate about elevating the role of the cheesemonger in Spain. Can you tell me why you feel this is important right now?
RB: That question hits the nail on the head, that’s the issue we’ve been putting so much effort and dedication into in recent years. This is the person at the forefront of the value chain in our sector, the professional who needs to champion and highlight all the work that has been done from the field to the cheese factory to the maturing spaces. In our country, the concept of a cheesemonger is unfamiliar, or it has been until very recently. The absence of trained professionals…has meant that this product still lacks the recognition that wine or specialty coffee might have. Learning from the experiences of the US, France, UK, Belgium, or Italy, we became convinced of the need to emphasize this link. Creating the role of cheesemonger in Spain, offering training, establishing job positions, and giving importance to individuals who show interest and enthusiasm for this work has been a priority for us in recent years. This is how at Quesería Cultivo, as well as in other cheese shops scattered across Spain like Quesería Elkano (San Sebastián), Quesería Aladina (Jaca), or Quesería El Sueño del Quesero (Albacete), a unique and unparalleled experience is offered in our country, diverging from the traditional way of selling. Cheese has suddenly become trendy. Now is the time to make the utmost effort to help solidify this role, which will pull the entire sector along, fostering growth and progress for all.
CM: Ok, so between building all the structures on your property, making your own cheeses, running a chain of dairies, exporting cheeses to other countries, and elevating the cheesemonger in Spain, I have only one question left: When do you sleep? Or better yet, what do you do to relax? I think you once mentioned something to me about going on silent meditation retreats with your business partner Juan?
AM: Asela, my wife, and our four children, have been key in this project. In them, I find my motivation and the reason why I get up every day to give 100% in the project. All the effort and sacrifice are rewarded when we have a moment with our family around the table, or on a walk in the countryside or in the mountains. In those moments with them I recover all my energy and recharge my batteries! But I have other refuges that are also very good for me. Spiritual retreats have been valuable. I have a water rower at home that makes me sweat. I have enjoyed reading historical novels for decades. I immerse myself in my natural wine cellar, where I enjoy orange wines, whites, clarets, reds, or sparkling wines from small, friendly producers that make me have fun getting to know the fascinating world of wine.
With his cheese shop and export business Quesería Cultivo, Rubén seeks out indie and artisan cheesemakers all over Spain. The resulting community is tight-knit and seeks to bring the country’s best to the rest of the world.
Beyond Manchego: 4 Spanish cheeses Americans should eat more of
No shade to the country’s classic sheep’s milk offering, but there is so much more to Spain than Manchego. Here, Rubén suggests four other Spanish standbys he thinks we ought to be eating more of.
- Mahón: From the Balearic island of Menorca in the Mediterranean Sea, spicy Mahón is made with the milk of endangered Menorquina cows—an autochthonous breed who’ve been grazing the island’s salt-swept sea grasses since at least the Bronze Age.
- Cremositos del Zújar tortas: The Spanish tortas of the Extremadura region—decadent rounds of raw sheep’s milk cheese coagulated with vegetable rennet—are pudding-like, complex, and barely contained by their rinds.
- Zamorano: The creamy, sweet, and piquant flavor of this basket-mold cheese comes from the milk of the scruffy native sheep of Castilla y León, and from the local olive oil the rind is rubbed with.
- Galmesan: One of many recent innovations Rubén is proud of, Galmesan is a hard, aged, cooked-paste wheel made in the style of Granas or Alpine cheeses with milk from cattle who graze Galician meadows.