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"Land of Cheese" Asturias, Spain: thousands of caves hidden in hills used by residents for centuries to age cheese

By WcP.Story.Teller - Posted on 10 December 2008

Raquel Viejo in her cheese cave, where she stores Cabrales, a blue cow's cheese named after the town in Asturias where it was first made


We were in Asturias, a sliver of northern Spain that rests on the Bay of Biscay, and I had been drawn there by the region’s tagline: “The Land of Cheese.”

My pilgrimage had led me to the bat cave last September where I was following Raquel Viejo, a local woman whose family has lived in Asturias for generations. The specialty of the region — and what was stored on those shelves — is Cabrales, a blue cow’s cheese named after the town in Asturias where it was first made.

Asturias, a sliver of northern Spain that rests on the Bay of Biscay, calls itself The Land of Cheese. There are thousands of caves hidden in the hills of this rugged region, and for centuries residents have been using them to age cheese

There are thousands of caves hidden in the hills here, and for centuries residents have been using them to age cheese. The specifics of each brand of cheese in various regions of Spain are regulated by a denomination of origin, or D.O., and Cabrales’s says it must be stored in cavelike conditions for at least two months so the good bacteria can kill off the bad.

A few years ago, the Spanish government created new regulations for the cheese makers in this area. Some of the old methods, like straining the milk with horsehair sieves, were done away with in favor of more modern technology, like metal strainers and mechanical devices. But the most important requirements — the dairy breed, the aging process, the lack of pasteurization — remain.

blue cheese from the remote area of Asturias in the north of Spain. Wedged between the ocean and the mountains, made from cow's milk, this small format blue has a full-bodied taste

Back in her home, amid the intoxicating (some might say rancid) smell of sour milk, I tasted a slice of Ms. Viejo’s cheese, named José Antonio Bueno García after her husband. It was drier and saltier than the blues I was used to, but it didn’t taste overly blue, as some softer cheeses can. Delicious, but I couldn’t shake the image of the bats taking a few nibbles. (Do bats even eat cheese?) So my search continued.

Through another farmer in the area, I tracked down a cheesemaker a few villages over who was famous for resisting modernity. This sounded promising. Oliva Peláez Amieva, a squat woman with a wrinkled face, greeted me outside her small stone house in a purple muumuu and clogs.

“You can tell how long a family has lived here by how they make cheese,” said Ms. Amieva, who has been at it for 60 years. Her cheese isn’t Cabrales because she ignores the D.O. guidelines; in fact, it doesn’t have a name. She only makes about 200 wheels a year and most of it goes to friends and family members. For the moment, I was in the inner circle.

Ms. Viejo kneads the curds for her Cabrales

“The health department wants me to put in all sorts of regulations, but it wouldn’t be as good,” says Ms. Amieva, 70. “I used to sell it at the market, but I got in trouble with the police.”

Her cheese was a wonderfully sharp, dry, crumbly blend of goat and sheep milk that tasted slightly of salt and soil. And it’s labor intensive. Without modern equipment, all of Ms. Amieva’s animals are milked by hand. Once the cheese is poured into molds, she rubs each mound with salt and turns it over daily to ensure that it ages evenly; by the end, over 90 percent of the original milk volume is gone.

This isolated nook of the country has spawned hundreds, if not thousands, of artisanal cheese makers for generations. The cheese is cruder than French fromage and not as recognizable as Italian counterparts, but here, each wheel is as idiosyncratic as the person who makes it. The cheese of northern Spain is, like the land that produces it, rough, coarse and sharp, and there’s no way to taste it without traveling there.
I worked my way through a quarter of a wheel as we sat in Ms. Amieva’s modest living room, and realized, too late, that the cheese was so dry, my tongue was sticking to the roof of my mouth. Ms. Amieva offered me homemade cider, the gently effervescent, lightly alcoholic beverage that always accompanies a piece of cheese in this area. It was the perfectly sweet balance to her defiantly unnamed snack.

the milk from Mr. Etxberria's cheese comes from his flock of sheep, many of which he has named. He says the sweet green grass they feed on creates the fragrant taste of clovers - strong, milky and grassy

“The reason my cheese is so delicious,” said Ms. Amieva, without a trace of modesty, “is my hands.” She turned her meaty, callused palms over for inspection. “The natural bacteria in my skin makes the cheese more flavorful.”

Mr. Baskaran makes Idiazábal, a hard sheep’s cheese with a strong, earthy flavor. Idiazábal is to Basque country what Cabrales is to Asturias — that is, there are thousands of small-scale farmers who think they make this delicious and individualistic cheese the best. And the only way to know for sure is to nibble your way through the wooded terrain of Basque country.

Mr. Baskaran was quick to tell me that he didn’t deserve credit, his sheep did. Soon it was time to meet the flock. He drove his Toyota 4runner up a deathly steep dirt road that led us above the clouds. Baht, the border collie, jumped out the window and rounded up the sheep for inspection, and hundreds of black faces paused momentarily before resuming their dinner of wild flowers. We stood on the summit of the mountain in the damp, white air, jagged cliffs looming like giant shark fins piercing the fog. “Big farms don’t make cheese like we do in Basque country because the sheep eat grains and they’re more stressed, so the milk is weak,” he said. “My sheep live peaceful lives.”

José Manuel Etxberria, who lives near San Sebastián, makes his Itxas Egi, a cheese variety from the Basque country

BEFORE I left Basque country, I met the least stressed sheep in all of Spain. Just west of San Sebastián, above the small town of Zumaia, there were hundreds of the puffy, four-legged cheese makers mowing a verdant field, mouthful by mouthful. They had trees for shade, a brook for water breaks, and 30 acres overlooking the dark, roiling Atlantic.

“My sheep live better than I do,” said the owner of Agerre Berri farm, José Manuel Etxberria, echoing a common sentiment in Basque country. Mr. Etxberria is 39 years old, with light eyes and skin browned from a lifetime outside. “They live very calm — they have a nice view of the ocean. In Basque, we say farmers love their sheep more than they love their women.”

Cabrales cheese on Ms. Viejo's shelves. The proper local accompaniment for it is cider

And they make the cheese to prove it. Mr. Etxberria’s version, Itxas Egi, is a hard sheep’s variety with a sharp bite and the fragrant taste of clovers — strong, milky and grassy. This, he claims, is his secret ingredient: Keep the sheep happy eating nothing but sweet green grass and they will return the favor with delicious cheese “that goes perfectly with a glass of red wine and a beautiful girl.”

So did I ever find the world’s best cheese? Mr. Etxberria’s came awfully close, but I had to stop short of calling it perfect because of something he said.

“Cheese is like sheep; they all have a different personality,” said Mr. Etxberria, who has actually named most of his sheep. “And I could never choose my favorite sheep. They are all my favorites.”


Photos courtesy of Matias Costa / The New York Times and

Original Source: NY Times

So did I ever find the world’s best cheese? Mr. Etxberria’s came awfully close, but I had to stop short of calling it perfect because of something he said.

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