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Max Abroad : The Best of Spain

Quite simply writing about the best things Spain has to offer and anything that might crop up along the way. Spain is a lot more than just sun, sand and sea...

Bierzo & Mencía - A match made in heaven
23 February 2015

 

El Bierzo, located in the North-West of Spain, is a mountainous region crossed by the Road to Santiago (Way of Saint James) which the pilgrims used to call the “Spanish Switzerland”. This extreme mountain feature is what makes it, together with its climate and soil, one of the ideal regions worldwide to grow vineyards.

The Mencía grape is the main variety of El Bierzo. This variety, scorned until very recently, has managed in the last few years to seduce the best enologists and wine producers in Spain, who have slowly gone looking for it in their territory, even highlighting it as one of the Spanish varietal jewels. They have understood it contains enormous potential and the challenge of bringing out all the possibilities it conceals to make great wines with character. Wines full of subtleties, with a good aging capability, and deep expressiveness of the history-laden terroir they grow in.

The origin of Mencía is lost in time, but there are many signs indicating it could be one of the first grape stocks introduced in the Iberian Peninsula. Already in ancient times, the areas where Mencía now rules were famous for the coming and going of Roman legions which planted the first vines and built presses, and since then these areas have had a deep wine-producing tradition. Supposedly through the Roman Road, the wine produced in these lands was transported to Imperial Rome, to be enjoyed by the emperors. References to the vines of the region of El Bierzo and Valdeorras already appeared two thousand years ago cited by the Roman Pliny. With the fall of the Empire, the vines also declined.

Their rebirth and greater expansion came with the growth of medieval monasteries, for which wine was not only an element of worship, but also an essential food product. Monks introduced new growing and production techniques. In addition to the splendour of the monasteries was the brilliance of the Road to Santiago, which encouraged the spread of vines, bestowing wine with a special significance. The first pilgrims to Santiago already spoke of the excellence of the wines produced along the way. On the road, wine became a precious asset, an element of barter, to pay taxes and also to pay the saints of the area for their miracles.
At the end of the 19th century, however, the phylloxera changed the picture, destroying many of the vines and leading to a major economic crisis that forced many to emigrate. Aside from people, it meant also the loss of many native Spanish varieties, which were not recovered until very recently. 

Vine growing was re-established in the first half of the 20th century, but the consequences of the Spanish Civil War between 1936 -1939 plunged many wine producers into absolute poverty, which forced them to emigrate, leading once again to the neglect of many vineyards.

Mencía generates wines of a deep raspberry colour, intense fruit aromas, but also delicate flower ones, good alcohol doses, proper acidity and aging possibility. Until recently, reds made of Mencía were rather light wines, ready to drink, with low alcohol content. Gradually they have changed, especially in El Bierzo, into wines that seek to bring out their full potential, the expressiveness of their soil, and the good aging capacity Mencía is showing, adding ever-longer aging periods in wood. This has resulted in the rebirth of this stock, which recent studies liken greatly to Cabernet Franc, which is why some link its origin to Bordeaux and the pilgrims coming from France for centuries following the Road to Santiago. 

A very sensitive grape, the Mencía crop stands out predominantly in mountain regions, which is why its ripening has much to do with the sun orientation and altitude of the vineyards. El Bierzo is the Spanish designation with the most French characteristics. Its geography features major geographical contrasts, deep river basins, mountainous ranges and marked differences between its high and low lands, all of which is reflected in its wines. Mineral slate soils, but also clay-muddy ones, stand out in the territory of Mencía. The substratum marks the wine’s minerality, and also underscores the various fruit expressions and concentrations.

 



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The Definitive Cheese Guide - Part 2
18 February 2015

Continued from part 1......

 

TIPS FOR BUYING AND EATING :


To offer a wide variety of cheeses in an optimum state for consumption, that are appealing to the eye, and are at the appropriate temperature is no easy task. This requires expertise and great enthusiasm. Thus, conventional retail is not always the best option, since this cannot always be provided. That is why it is always best to seek out a specialist.

For example, it is good to keep in mind that craft cheeses made from raw milk will vary slightly in their organoleptic properties throughout the year and there are times when these properties are better evinced.

This is the case of the Quesucos from Liébana, creamier in autumn, winter and spring. The best torta cheeses are available from December to June. However, if there has been a good autumn, they can be eaten from late October.

Blue cheeses from the Picos de Europa mountains reach their peak in summer, autumn and early winter. When goat and sheep’s milk is more readily available (in spring and late summer), ripened cheeses become greasier and develop more aromas and flavours.
Goat cheeses from Extremadura and Andalusia are more buttery and exquisite from November until July.

The key to providing good service is to spend time becoming well trained, gaining knowledge and learning how to care for cheese, visiting dairies, cheese fairs and even spending extensive time with cheesemakers in France, Italy, Switzerland, or England, where there are highly skilled professionals.

With solid training and good sources of information, a decision can be made on which supplier is best suited and cheeses may be rejected that do not have the characteristics required. It is also possible to learn which cheeses are seasonal and other very important variables.

And when should cheese be eaten? It can be eaten throughout the day. In Spain, unlike in France, it is not customary to eat cheese as a dessert, but rather as an appetiser. Both options are good as long as we know which type of cheese we are selecting and how to combine it with the rest of the dishes.

In any case, the world of cheese in Spain has experienced such an amazing revolution in recent years that consumer habits are changing drastically and rigid rules are no longer valid. What we should however celebrate is the fact that there is a growing interest in this product, especially craft cheeses, which are opening the door to new consumers.

 

PRACTICAL TIPS

When purchasing cheese, it is a good idea to recognise its most representative features: the type of rind, the colour of the cheese on cutting into it, the type of eyes if there are any, the texture, and the characteristic aromas and flavours.

Cheese should be understood as a living product, one that evolves over time. Also, cheeses derived from raw milk always display slight differences depending on the time of year, due to the climate and changes in feed, especially in the case of animals that graze on pastures.

Therefore, we should understand the stage of development that the cheese is at when we make the purchase and determine how it might evolve and how long it will keep.
This will all depend on a range of factors that are good to know, enabling an informed decision on consumption.

The following practical pointers will help you to select the best cheeses, considering the following aspects:

 

The rind

The rind will reveal the status of the ageing process in the cheese, especially in softer ones and will serve as a guide in terms of the conditions the cheese was ripened under, if it has undergone any treatment (paprika, oil, wine, etc.).

Many of Spain’s pressed cheeses either have a natural rind, brushed and smeared with oil or lard, or a plastic rind in a variety of colours, etc. The latter is for purely aesthetic reasons and hardly affects the texture or flavour of the cheese. These are Spain’s great sheep’s milk cheeses: Manchego, Zamorano, Idiazábal, Castellano, etc.

In craft cheeses, the natural flora that blooms on the rind impose their own personality and contribute to the specific aromas and flavours that develop.

In soft cheeses, the microbial flora in the rind (mould, bacteria and yeast) play a major role in defining their texture, smell and flavour.

 

Naturally-treated rind

In certain cheeses, the rind is treated to prevent the development of mould or insect larvae.
This is the case with certain Extremadura goat cheeses, which are covered in a blend of Vera paprika and oil.

Cheeses from the Canary Islands (Majorero, Gran Canaria) tend to use roasted maize wheat and paprika, which gives them a toasted flavour with hints of spices.

In the case of Murcia wine cheese, it is washed or marinated in red Jumilla wine, giving the rind the reddish violet colour as well as very subtle fruity aromas.

Lard has also been a good cheese protector, preventing drying or oxidation. It is very frequently used in many sheep’s milk cheeses with long ageing processes. (Grazalema, Manchego, Zamorano, Castellano).

In recent years a trend has developed to cover the cheeses in aromatic herbs (thyme, rosemary, etc..) and spices (pepper). This has contributed to extending the vast number of varieties available.

 

Rind of smoked cheeses

The intensity of the brown colour in the cheese rind gives away the amount of smoking carried out during treatment. A dark coloured rind gives off a toasted and tar-like smell.
The lighter the tone of brown, the less smoking it will have undergone and the less intense the cheese will be.

Good smoked cheeses have a light brown rind and give off a pleasing and pungent aroma. The toasty hints of smoke should be barely noticeable and in any case they should be perceived at the end in a subtle way.

 

Moist rind with remelo

Moist rinds indicate a soft and/or semi-soft texture, meaning that the cheese was ripened in an enclosed environment with high humidity levels.

Some cheeses with this type of rind undergo continuous washing and sobaos or “handling” with water (Acehúche). They are popularly known as “smelly” cheeses, due to the somewhat foul smell they give off, although this is later not noticed in the flavour. The region of the Sierra de San Pedro mountains is the only place where this cheese is referred to as “smelly”. They feature an orangey yellow colour and a type of remelo or sticky substance in the rind resulting from the bacteria (Brevibacterium linens) that may be added to the milk through special cultures or may develop on their own during the constant washing.

During ripening, they undergo intense fermentation where their texture becomes soft and they develop a certain putrid flavour, which many cheese-lovers consider to be delicious.

These are cheeses that evolve quickly and take on a flavour of ammonia over time, especially if the texture is soft and they are not kept at a low temperature (4-6º C). Thus a strong smell of ammonia indicates an advanced level of ageing.

In caves, where there is a high level of atmospheric humidity, the rinds of some cheeses (Cabrales, Picón Bejes-Tresviso, Aracena, Sierra de Espadán) are also covered with a viscous remelo and other surface flora of various colours (bluish greens, whites, browns, etc..)

 

Moist or bloomy rind

White and green Penicillium moulds are the surface flora of soft and semi-soft cheeses and contribute to the development of specific aromas and flavours. In some cases, they are also covered in ash or an activated charcoal.

These cheeses are consumed in three stages of ripening: young, when the border is not very pronounced and is light beige; medium, when the inside takes on a beige tone; and mature, when it has a strong ammonia-like smell.

When young, the rind is aromatic and edible with hints of vegetable and fungi (oyster mushrooms, button mushrooms). It has a bright and somewhat shiny colour. Over time it gets darker and more wrinkled and the colour dulls. Then the flavour is very strong and bitter with unpleasant spicy flavours.

 

Natural, cellar-type rind

Many hard and semi-hard craft cheeses feature a naturally dark moist rind that ranges from bluish green in the younger ones (Garrotxa) to brownish-grey or brown in more developed cheeses.

Such cheeses have a lot of personality, they are very buttery on the palate and are very complex in terms of flavour.

If you wish to eat the rind, you can scrub it with water to remove the mould. Beat an egg and add the chopped up pieces of rind. Then fry them in a lot of olive oil and serve them as an appetiser.

 

Brushed and waxy rind

Traditional and craft semi-hard and hard cheeses also tend to be clean, yellow, waxy and shiny. This should not be confused with the painted plastic coverings and anti-fungals that some factory-produced cheeses are given.

In the case of young cheeses (Arzúa-Ulloa, Cantabria, Garmillas), a short ripening period and intense airing out prevents the growth of mould.

In mature cheeses (Idiazábal, Manchego, Zamorano), the rinds are washed vigorously to remove the mould covering them and they are later dried at room temperature for several hours.

In other types of cheeses, the rind is brushed to remove the mould and the surface level flora and to give them a “cleaner” appearance when sold.

They usually contain some mould still but much less and the rind in general has an elegant appearance, indicating high quality.

 

The inside: appearance when cut

Once the cheese is cut in half, you can begin to discover more about it: the animal milk it is derived from, the approximate ageing time, how the ripening was carried out, the care it received, if it was well made or preserved well, etc.

 

The colour of the cheese’s interior

Young cheeses derived from cow’s milk are pale yellow-white and after a few minutes of being cut open the yellow colour darkens. (Tetilla, Garmillas, Cantabria, Arzúa-Ulloa, etc.)

The cheeses derived from the milk of animals that graze on the pastures have a more intense yellow colour due to the carotenes present in the grass. (organic craft Mahón cheeses from spring to early summer).

In more cured cheeses, the yellow is more intense and can even be considered orange in the mature Mahón types.

Cheeses with a predominantly acidic coagulation reveal a whiter colour upon cutting into them. (Cebreiro, Afuega’l Pitu)

Goat cheeses are white when you cut into them, if they have been ripened for a short to medium period of time, 1 to 3 months (Ibores, Murcia wine cheese, Palmero, Majorero, Garrotxa).

When they reach a greater degree of maturity, after 4-5 months, these same cheeses take on a matte white colour rather like ivory.

Excessive whiteness in hard or semi-hard cheeses is a sign of high acidity and poor production. Over time, post-acidification occurs and the inside becomes acidic and dry and the cheese develops very slowly.  Very young cheeses that are highly moist inside tend to take on an excessive acidity.

Lactic or  acidic log-style cheeses with moist rinds that have been ripened for shorter periods of time (goat cheese logs, Montenebro, Ossera, Baridá) are pearly white and their rind is edible.

As they develop, the part near the rind turns beige and it gets creamier.

Over time the inside gets darker, creamier, and takes on a more ammonia-like flavour.

Young cheeses derived from sheep’s milk and tortas have a bone-white colour, reaching straw yellow in the most mature cheeses and even darker tones in very aged cheeses.

The intensity of the yellow is also determined mainly by the animal’s nutrition. The milk of pasture-bred animals is higher in carotenes than milk derived from indoor livestock farming, which explains the deeper yellow colour.

Blue cheeses should be ivory-white with clear greenish blue veins distributed evenly throughout the paste, though mainly in the centre.

The darker the colour of the paste and the more the Penicillium mould has infiltrated it, the spicier and stronger the cheese will be.

A brown border around the rind means that the cheese is very developed and that it has a spicy, soapy and strong flavour on the palate.

Other blue cheeses like Peral must be totally infiltrated with green mould (penicillium),, although in smaller quantities than the other cheeses. When a cheese is very young and the mould has not grown much inside, the cheese’s bitterness is more predominant.

Gamoneu is a very special cheese and little is produced. The colour of the paste should be yellowish and it should feature some blue Penicillium veins beneath the rind. The Designation of Origin allows for two types:  “del Valle” and “del Puerto”. “Del Puerto” cheese ripens in natural caves and is made in the summer from the milk of the animals that graze there. “Del Valle” cheese can be ripened in natural caves or under artificial conditions and is made all year.

 

The Eyes (bubbles - holes - cracks)

There are basically two types of eyes: those produced by the lactate-fermenting bacteria present in the milk and in the fermenters added during production, and the mechanical eyes that are technically “cracks” produced during pressing. The first ones are rounded and slightly crushed and the second ones are irregular in size and shape.

In general, Spanish raw milk and pressed cheeses have eyes (produced by fermentation) that are small – pinpoint sized – and limited in number and are irregularly distributed. It is also usual to find some type of mechanical eye no greater than 2 or 3 mm. A raw milk cheese without eyes (blind cheese) indicates an excellent bacteriological quality.

The cracks, splits and openings indicate defective production or unsatisfactorily hygienic milk quality.

Blue cheeses must have two types of eyes (mechanical and from fermentation) as well as small cracks or cavities in order to encourage the Penicillium cabraliensis to develop. This is also why the cheese is not pressed.

Among the cheeses made with pasteurised milk are those without eyes (Murcia wine cheese, San Simón), produced by adding homofermentative lactic acids to the milk, and cheeses with a small or moderate number of eyes due to the action of the heterofermentative lactic-fermenters, in addition to other aromatic compounds. (Tetilla, Arzúa-Ulloa, factory-produced Mahón and some Manchego cheeses).

Large, numerous eyes, swelling, bulging, cavities, or openings indicate low bacteriological milk quality and a defective production process.

 

The smell, aroma and flavour

These factors will influence us the most when sampling a cheese, since tastes vary greatly and are highly personal.

Strong spicy cheeses are aggressive on the palate, but some people love these cheeses. Generally, they are very evolved cheeses that clearly indicate a rancidity or saponification of the fats.

In a good cheese, the hints of spiciness should never be perceived towards the beginning of the tasting (not even in blue cheeses), because they will mask certain aromas and subtle flavours.

A good type of heat should be a spiced or peppered type and should appear at the end, in the aftertaste, and should be combined with a certain nuttiness. Cheese should leave a flavour that is “pleasing to the mouth”

The smell, at times, does not coincide with the flavour. There are cheeses that smell good to the nose, but taste bland or have a dirty or unpleasant flavour.

The smell of an animal stable or a dirty, rancid, soap or medicine-like smell, etc. is a good reason to reject a cheese and not buy it. Certain dirty, rancid and spicy flavours are also to be found in cheeses that have been vacuum packed for a long time.

Cheeses with a moist rind (Acehúche, Cabrales, Picón Bejhes-Tresviso) tend to undergo intensive fermentation and have a slight putrid smell in the nose, but this should not come through on the palate, especially the hints of very strong ammonia.

Good cheeses derived from pasteurised cow’s milk have a slight animal smell that is slightly reminiscent of cream and butter. In the mouth they have hints of yoghourt and certain herbs and flowers. The aftertaste should be pleasant and not bitter.

Cheeses derived from raw milk offer greater depth of flavour: the smell is stronger in those aged for lengthy periods (craft Mahón), the acidity is less pronounced and is more blended into the cheese.

In very mature cheeses, the aroma of leather and rancid butter develops with an aftertaste of roasted nuts (almonds, hazelnuts).

In goat cheese made from raw milk, the “goaty quality” is very pronounced and is a hallmark of its identity (Ibores, Acehúche, craft Majorero) but it should never take over. It is milder in cheeses made from pasteurised milk and can hardly be detected.

A goat cheese that is full of tiny air pockets is symptomatic of poor bacteriological quality, which leads to dirty aromas and unpleasant flavours. If it is aged over a long period, it has an excessive unpleasant bite to it.

Good sheep’s milk cheeses should be persistent in the mouth and buttery on the palate. We should be left with a slightly oily sensation with clean aromas and a fruitiness with hints of clean wool animals.

In torta cheeses, sour and bitter flavours should not be too pronounced. The texture should be very smooth, creamy and oily. Acidity and sharpness are negative attributes.

In cheeses with a soft interior and a moist rind, the predominant flavours are of vegetables and flowers (hay, herbs, straw) or fungi-like (with an earthy, oyster mushroom taste and a moist rind).

In cheeses where the internal paste has undergone washing, the hints of fermented vegetables (cabbage, cauliflower) are very pronounced and intense flavours are predominant.

Blue cheeses give off intense smells that can be reminiscent of a stable or shambles. They should not stand out much since the smell of moisture and  Penicillium should predominate.

Good blue cheeses are very aromatic, slightly acidic and have hints of sweet cereals (biscuits) and nuts. The spice comes on little by little and is persistent but is not aggressive.

This also depends on personal taste, since many Cabrales lovers enjoy its excessively spicy and metallic flavour.

 

PRESERVATION AND CARE

Cheese preservation always presents problems when we try to keep them for a long period.
Anyone who has ever left a wedge of cheese in the refrigerator without protection can confirm that the next day it becomes cracked and dry, despite the fact that it is the best at-home preservation method. The problem is that it is dry cold that “robs” the cheese of its moisture, drying it out.

If you want your cheeses to keep well, you should wrap them appropriately, in food wrapping paper of the sulphurised type with a film, especially for soft cheeses in a small size since they will suffer the most.

Another option is to use airtight plastic containers but you should keep an eye on soft cheeses since they produce ammonia at low oxygen levels.

To keep pieces of cheese for longer, and prevent the outer mould from penetrating the interior, you can cover the eyes, holes and cracks with a knife, as if to seal the opening (similar to how we spread butter on bread).

 

Temperature

The drying out and abrupt changes of temperature are, perhaps, cheese’s two main enemies.
Hard cheeses must be kept between 8ºC and 12ºC.  Soft and blue cheeses require lower temperatures.  (4-8ºC).

To store them for longer they can be wrapped in a slightly damp cloth or in their original packaging and kept at a lower temperature (2-4º C).

 

Humidity
This is probably the factor that people are most careless about in the preservation of cheese but it is one of the most important.  Cheeses need a high level of humidity (85-95%) for them to age properly.

The softer the cheese and smaller its size, the higher the level of humidity needed to preserve it.

The best way of preserving moist-rind cheeses in the refrigerator is to wrap them in a slightly damp cotton cloth.

In cheeses with washed rinds, scrub them with a cloth soaked in salt water every 3-5 days. This prevents the interior from drying out and keeps the rind from cracking.

 

Preservation of different types of cheese

Small-format, soft cheeses from milk with a low fat content (such as that of Friesian cows and some goats) quickly become dry and brittle in texture. For this reason it is best to store these cheeses well wrapped in a cold environment for no more than 15-20 days.

Large-sized blue cheeses (2 to 3 Kg) that are at the optimum point of consumption will keep well for a month. Small-sized ones go bad very easily because they tend to dry out in just a few days.

Torta cheeses (Serena, Casar) are best eaten quickly, within 30 days, as long as they do not smell too strongly of ammonia.

Pressed goat cheeses last perfectly for 1 to 3 months, depending on their size and state of ripening when they are purchased.

Cheeses made at the end of winter (put on the market from April through June) are the most fatty and aromatic.

Pressed sheep’s-milk cheeses store better than other cheeses because of their high fat content. They will last perfectly for several months if protected in the refrigerator.

The harder the cheese and the higher the fat content of the milk, the better it will keep.
Very soft, creamy cheeses (torta and blue cheeses) can be frozen, although this will always result in some loss of flavour. Cut the cheese into four pieces and wrap them in aluminium or wax paper and put them in the freezer. Thawing should be done slowly, first in the refrigerator until it reaches a normal texture and then at the appropriate eating temperature (24-25ºC).

In general, freezing is not recommended for firm or semi-firm cheeses as this modifies their texture and flavour. They can be used as grated cheeses.

Those who wish to ripen their cheeses and get a very interesting experience out of it can use a standard refrigerator as a ripening or keeping cellar.
The trick is to keep the vegetable compartment full of water. This way the cheese will get the humidity it needs.

The temperature should be between 8 and 12ºC. Therefore, you use a higher temperature setting.

It is important to protect the cheeses with a damp cloth and turn them over every 3-4 days.

You can sample them periodically, every 10-15 days. The surface when cut over time will again be covered in bloom that serves as a protector. Once again, the thin layer of mould is cut and again you can sample it.

Cheeses made from raw goat’s milk that are small in size (1 kg) tend to improve significantly if they are left to ripen up to 3-4 months (from the production date); in the case of pasteurised milk, two months is enough.

Soft cow’s milk cheeses from the north of Spain gain a lot in terms of flavour after a month from the production date and no more than three, depending on the size. (It is good to note the production dates)
Cheeses made from raw sheep’s milk in large sizes (3 kg or more) develop their best characteristics 6 months after production and up to a year or more if they are well protected and kept out of the light.

Large-sized blue cheeses (3-4 kg) can develop well for up to 5 or 6 months after the production date.

It is necessary to remove them from their original aluminium wrapping and dry them with a cloth or kitchen paper if they are moist on the outside. Wrap them in a damp cloth and leave them in the coldest part of the refrigerator.

 



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The Definitive Cheese Guide - Part 1
18 February 2015

 

Spain’s diversity in terms of topography, soil and climate has lent itself to the emergence of ecosystems that are clearly suited for stockbreeding, whose origin dates back to ancient times. This has resulted in the wide variety of cheeses that are derived from native animal breeds.

The quality milk from indigenous breeds and the know-how of shepherds and cheese makers have given rise to a large range of top quality cheeses. The Spanish Inventory of Traditional Products, published in 1996 by the Ministry for Agriculture, Fishing and Food, includes one hundred varieties of cheese from all over the country. Of these, 28 have been awarded official Designation of Origin.

In the last two decades numerous artisan cheeses have appeared all over Spain. Many of them are original, innovative products and some are already well established, achieving prominence within the world of Spanish cheeses. This development has contributed to a rich culinary heritage that today now includes over 150 varieties of cheese.

Spain is experiencing a veritable cheese revolution, similar what happened with wine 30 years ago. It is important to bear in mind that this is a living product that evolves over time. In the case of raw-milk cheeses, there are slight differences throughout the year due to the changes in climate and feed, especially when the milk comes from animals that graze in pastures. There are therefore many aspects that must be taken into account when discerning a good cheese. The rind can reveal the state of ripeness of the cheese, especially in soft cheeses. It also indicates the conditions in which it has been matured or if it has undergone some kind of treatment.

The appearance inside the cheese when cut also provides invaluable information. Cutting a cheese in half allows you to decipher the animal the milk is from, the approximate maturation time, how it has been ripened and the care it has received. But, without a doubt, the most important traits are to be found in the cheese’s aroma and taste. Sharp, spicy and lactic notes are just some of the nuances that can be discerned.


When it comes to preserving cheese, people often have many doubts or encounter difficulties, especially when they attempt to store it for a long time. To store it correctly, special care must be taken with the temperature and humidity.


Knowing the characteristics of the different varieties and their production areas will help when choosing the best suppliers, reject cheeses that do not come up to scratch and opt for those that are at their best moment.

The cheese sector in Spain is constantly evolving and there can be no denying that interest in cheese is on the rise, especially with regards to artisan cheeses, which are becoming more and more popular among consumers.

Spain’s diversity in terms of topography, soil and climate lends itself to the emergence of ecosystems that are particularly suited for livestock breeding. The seclusion of many of these areas up until relatively recently has meant that certain ways of life as well as the agricultural and livestock systems have been protected and maintained, with a personality all their own, and breeds that are adapted to the environment have been protected.

This has led to diversity in the home-produced cheeses that are the result of the milk of these breeds, combined with the know-how of the people. The latter has developed over hundreds of years, preserving this pastoral culture in its entirety.

The Inventario Español de Productos Tradicionales (Spanish Inventory of Traditional Products), published by the Spanish Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in 1996, is a compilation of hundreds of varieties of cheeses from all over Spain, 28 of which are protected under a Designation of Origin.

Added to all of these are the new craft cheeses that have emerged in the last 20 years all over Spain. These cheeses are often original and innovative, and some are already very well established, having carved out a niche for themselves in the Spanish cheese market.

Thus we can begin to talk about a rich heritage that goes far beyond the 150 varieties. Spain’s master cheesemakers continue to be creative with their imagination and expertise, and present new varieties on top of the already existing ones.

The main types or families of Spanish cheese are the following:

 

Fresh cheeses

Fresh Spanish cheeses, unlike those from France or other European countries, are sweet, milky and don’t spread as easily. This is because they are coagulated quickly and are later cut with curd knives to separate the whey. This is what is technically referred to as enzymatic coagulation.

There are basically two types: “Burgos” style, which is very moist and does not keep long (1-2 weeks). These are the cheeses presented in tubs and the ones that have yellowed or have too much whey must be discarded. In the Mediterranean area, fresh pressed cheeses are typical and are usually derived from goat’s milk. They also keep for long periods of time and are very flavourful. A distinction can be drawn between those from the Valencia region, such as “servilleta” cheeses that are creamier and more moist and those from Murcia and Andalusia where fresh cheese has a long tradition and is prepared on the grill in slices.

They must be distinguished from the factory-produced white fresh cheeses that are made with more sophisticated methods, are more moist and keep longer due to the longer heat treatment they undergo. These cheeses are blander and have a gummy texture in the mouth.

Only two traditional cheeses fit into the category of acidic fresh cheeses, although they can ripen over time. Cebreiro Cheese (Lugo) and Babia y Laciana Cheese (León), which are made from milk that has been acidified for hours and are then drained in a cheesecloth. The result is an oily cheese that is slightly acidic and keeps longer than the “Burgos” style classic fresh cheeses.

Examples: Servilleta, Alicante, Fresco de Murcia, Burgos, Cebreiro D.O., Mató, Babia and Laciana.

 

Pressed cheeses that are hard and semi-hard

The greatest number of Spanish cheeses are encompassed within this category and Manchego serves as an example, although the factory-made blended ones are the most popular. Milk, whether pasteurised or not, is heated to 30–32ºC and is curdled with the animal enzyme rennet for 40-50 minutes. The curd is then cut into small cheese curds the size of a lentil and they are later blended so that the curds can bind together. For some cheeses, light heat is applied to facilitate the whey extraction process. They are then placed in moulds and subjected to a certain pressure to release the whey and to give the cheeses their final shape.

The cheeses are salted in brine for several hours depending on their size. In the past they were salted by hand, although the rind was thinner due to a lower pressure applied. They go first through an “airing phase” that lasts several days and are later ripened for several months in a temperature, humidity and air controlled cellar. Clearly, over time these cheeses evolve into harder more predictable cheeses.

Examples: All of the great Spanish sheep’s milk cheeses and some goat and cow’s milk cheeses such as Mahón-Menorca, San Simón Da Costa, Majorero, Palmero, Ibores, Murcia, Manchego, Zamorano, Roncal, Idiazábal, Pata de Mulo, etc.

 

Pressed cheeses that are semi-soft and semi-hard

The production process is very similar to the ones described above although they usually undergo a less intensive pressing and the cheese curd size is larger (pea-sized). Less time is needed for ripening (2 to 4 weeks), so they tend to be creamier. These are the cheeses from the north of the country, made mainly from pasteurised cow’s milk. In some parts of Extremadura and Andalusia, goat cheeses are made in winter and early spring. They are hand pressed as in the past, giving them a semi-soft texture.

These include Galician Tetilla and Arzúa-Ulloa, Liébana cheeses and Cantabria cheeses, most of the cheeses from Asturias and some of the ones from the Aragonese and Catalan Pyrenees, to name a few. Within the category of goat cheese is Aracena cheese, Quesailla from Extremadura, Garrotxa from Catalonia, etc. These cheeses should be eaten from February to June.

 

Soft unpressed cheeses

This type of cheese is appearing more and more on the market. With a clearly French influence, the new Spanish craft cheesemakers are developing a series of products that are having an impact on the market. They may have a moist rind that is a white velvety colour or combined with bluish green. They may also be washed with wine, aromatic herbs or “kneaded”; the latter is still done in parts of southern Extremadura and Andalusia.

The ripening process lasts between 2 and 6 weeks. They are generally cheeses that come in small sizes, less than one kilogram. The flavour is reminiscent of mushrooms, cereal or straw with a raw hazelnut aftertaste. In the case of cheeses where the rind is washed, there are hints of vegetables and even ammonia.
In this type of cheese, the micro-organisms blooming on the surface (mould, bacteria or yeast) are what cause the proteolysis of the inside of the cheese from the outside, the opposite of what happens with torta cheeses where the process starts on the inside and goes outward.

These types of cheeses include Cabriola, Acehúche, Tou dels Tillers, etc.


Cheeses with a vegetable-based curdling agent: torta cheeses

These cheeses are technically a production defect, since they are cheeses where the whey has not been properly extracted.  In Extremadura, a cheesemaker wanted to make a cheese with a more or less hard interior to later preserve it in oil so that it could last all year, but because of the cold and damp time of year and due to the vegetable-based curdling agent and high percentage of total fats in the milk, the cheese “turned to cake” (or torta), becoming very creamy. It had an exquisite taste but it couldn’t be kept long. The high content of fat contained in the merino sheep’s milk during this time of year and the vegetable-based curdling agent also facilitated the forming of the torta.

Extremadura, Andalusia and Gran Canaria, together with Portugal, are the only places where the famous torta cheeses are produced; they are made with a curdling agent derived from wild thistle flowers. Nowadays the entire process is controlled and industrial cooling systems are used to produce and ripen the cheeses.

These are cheeses that give off an odour of fermented vegetable material and wool; at times they have a slight putrid smell, although this indicates that it has been overly ripened. The torta must be very creamy and must melt on the palate. It must have very fine graininess in the mouth and a slightly sour, oily, animal flavour with a bitter aftertaste. It should not be acidic or spicy as this is considered a defect.

They are best consumed at a temperature of between 24 and 26ºC. Therefore, it is recommended to let these cheeses sit for several hours, until they reach the right temperature.

 

Blue cheeses

These cheeses are also known as “marbled cheeses” or “blue-veined cheeses” (due to the Penicillium) although they are popularly referred to as blue cheeses. The Picos de Europa mountains is the land par excellence for these cheeses. The limestone caves with their high levels of humidity facilitate the development of Penicillium inside the cheese. Likewise the air currents that are locally referred to as “soplados” (meaning “blowing”) circulating through the caves are what aid the Penicillium in introducing itself into the cheese. These cheeses have a pungent smell, are buttery on the palate and have a relatively spicy aftertaste, depending on the type of milk used and ageing time.

Cabrales, Gamonedo, Picón Bejes-Tresviso, (with Designation of Origin) together with blue cheese from Valdeón, which has a PGI, make up the group of the great Spanish blue cheeses.

Certain Asturian cheeses such as Peral should also be mentioned as well as new Catalan blue cheeses, which are produced and consumed on a small-scale basis.

Cheeses with lactic or acidic coagulation

These goat cheese logs are increasingly popular although other forms are available and they can be made from all types of milk. They have a moist rind that is generally white, although there are also some with a darker rind. They are made from a controlled acidification process that lasts 24 hours and uses very low levels of curdling agents. The whey extraction is slow and is done spontaneously without pressing. This makes for cheeses that are more moist and tend to dry up quickly.

Montenebro, white log cheese, Carrat with ash, Rio Vero, etc. are cheeses that are made using this type of technique.

In part 2 we will look at tips for  buying and preserving cheese...

 



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