A Frenchmen in the cheese industry once said, “The cheeses of France are famous, but the cheeses of Spain have flavor.” What an interesting point to ponder. New evidence suggests that cheese production in the Iberian peninsula began as early as 200 B.C., which means that it might have actually pre-dated Roman occupation – whose conquests introduced much of today’s cheese making traditions to France and Italy. Spanish cuisine is as historically rich and regionally diverse as Italy and France, yet most Americans would be hard-pressed to name one traditional Spanish cheese.
In our defense, artisan Spanish cheeses have only been available in the US since the early 90’s. Much later than our introduction to Italian cheeses with their immigrant roots, or to French cheeses that became trendy in the seventies and eighties. If you, as an eater feel slighted, you can place the blame on Spain’s infamous dictator – Francisco Franco. Following the Spanish Civil War, in an effort to industrialize the dairy industry, he outlawed the production of artisan cheeses. Predictably, cheese-makers gave up, or went underground. Many traditional Spanish cheeses disappeared all-together.
Following his death in 1975, Spanish cheese-makers were able to resume their craft. But it took years to rebuild the artisan cheese industry. Many of the cheeses had to be reinvented from scratch. This explains why it wasn’t until the 90’s that they were making enough cheese to be able to export some to theU.S. Fortunately for us, today the Spanish cheese industry has made a lot of progress, and we can enjoy the bounty ofSpain’s cheeses. Much like the cheese making traditions in other parts of Europe, the cheeses ofspainare products of their environment, from the nutty sheep’s milk cheeses made high up in the Pyranees, to the funky Tortas of Extremadura, and the velvety cow’s milk cheeses ofSpain’s lush northern coast.
If pressed, the employees at Great Ciao can name several Spanish cheeses. Many of them we import directly from the producers, and bring to the U.S. by air-freight to ensure that they arrive in pristine condition.
Here are a few that make us giddy:
Mahón: Mahón is from the island of Menorca and is one of a few cow’s milk cheeses from Spain. The most remote of the Balearic Islands, Menorca has been famous for cheese for centuries, and in 1993 the island was designated a biosphere reserve by UNESCO. Mahón is typically ripened between four months and two years, we carry a younger four month Mahón, as well as a more mature 8 month version. Mahon is rubbed with Pimenton throughout its aging process which stains the rind a rusty red hue, and lends a delicate spiciness to the paste of the cheese. At peak, Mahón is tangy, intense and delicious.
12 month Quevedo Manchego: Javier Pelegri LeBlanc, the cheesemaker at Quevdeo, is also an engineer, and he designed and built the model cheese factory which twice daily milks 2000 Manchego sheep. From this is produced 20,000 kilograms of superb raw milk Manchego cheese every year. “The Manchego race is very hardy,” says Mr. Leblanc “and able to withstand the hot summers and very cold winters. Unfortunately, their yield is very small – between one and two liters from two milkings daily.” This is a unique Manchego with a dense rich paste and buttery overtones, it has a pleasant brothiness.
Queso de Torta from Finca Pascuelete: It would be easy to compare this cheese to an epoisses or a washed rind camembert as it has similarities to many cheeses, but it truly stands on its own. Like most cheese there are three ingredients, but one is distinct. The milk is from sheep, the salt is sea salt, and the coagulant is thistle rennet from the Cuajo’s blue flower (cardoon). The flavor and texture that result are stunning, bright, and floral. Its creamy texture, nearly liquid, due to its daily and continuous rotation, melts deliciously on the palate.
Valdeon: A hearty blue made with a blend of pasteurized cow and goat milk, is produced by a company called La Caseria in the province of Leon, Spain. Often overshadowed by its famous relative, Cabrales, Valdeon proves noteworthy and deserving of attention. Carefully wrapped in giant sycamore leaves, this beautiful cheese is aged for a minimum of two months in caves nestled throughout the mountainous landscape of the region. Aromas of damp earth, tobacco and vanilla emerge as the wheel is released from its leafy package. Valdeon has very little of the biting spice found in Cabrales. Hints of chocolate, roasted meats and crusty baked bread roll over the palate in every creamy mouthful.
Monte Enebro: Handmade in Avila, Spain, by legendary cheesemaker Rafael Baez and his daughter Paloma. The Baezs make their complex goat’s milk cheese from pasteurized milk and then inoculate the logs with, penicillium roqueforti, the mold that is used to make Roquefort. However, rather than piercing the cheese, which would allow blue veins to develop throughout, the blue mold develops on the rind of the cheese, adding to Monte Enebro’s complex flavors and distinctive appearance. Mahón has a piquant bite, with a nice combination of acidity and salt.
Garrotxa: Pronounced Gar-oh-CHA, with the accent on the last syllable. This is a modern farmhouse Goat’s milk cheese. Garrotxa was brought back from extinction in the 90’s by taking the traditional recipe for the cheese and applying modern techniques. The suede-like rind hides a bone white interior. The texture is firm and almost flaky. The pure, white milk seems to have absorbed the flavor of fresh pine nuts and the fresh crispness of young grass. It has a mild and creamy goat flavor, nutty, with herbal hints.