A world-beating cheese from Extremadura
Dehesas landscape in Extremadura. Pablo Neustadt/©ICEX
Author: Paul Richardson/©ICEX
If you've ever tried Torta del Casar you're unlikely to have forgotten the experience. The Torta del Casar has a rich flavour and a rich history - both well worth exploring.
For those as yet unfamiliar with it, the torta is a sheep’s milk cheese from Extremadura, western Spain. The cheese has a yellowish or ochre-coloured rind and a flat, round shape with slightly bulging sides which are sometimes kept in place by a strip of fabric or paper.
The traditional method of serving is to cut a disc out of the upper surface of the cheese. Now comes the surprise: below the rind is a thick, creamy, ivory-coloured paste. When fully ripe the Torta is so runny inside that it leaks out of cracks in the rind.
This is the moment to arm yourself with hunks of bread or toast, or with vegetable crudités (carrot, cucumber and courgette work well) and scoop out the unctuous cream - a kind of Spanish take on the fondue.
Behind this unique cheese lies a long and fascinating history. It originates in the countryside around Cáceres, cradle of a rich culture of shepherds and shepherding. The region is traversed by a network of drovers' trails (cañadas or cordeles) once used by Spain's huge flocks of sheep in their twice-yearly migrations north (in summer) and south (in winter).
Cheese formed a source of income for the shepherds, who made it with the surplus milk after lambing in springtime. In general the cheeses were hard and durable, valued above all for their storing qualities. But once in a while a reaction occurred in the cheese: it acquired a flat, cake-like shape and failed to set correctly; it was said to be 'atortado' (from 'torta', meaning flatbread or cake).
Over time, word got out about these special cheeses, which became a sought-after delicacy, practically a cult, among the gourmets of Extremadura and beyond. In 1999 the Protected Designation of Origin Torta del Casar was created to bring order to the chaotic and chance-driven procedures of the past. The DOP set in stone what had hitherto been the dictates of tradition.
It required, for example, that the cheese should be made with raw sheep’s milk from the Merina or Entrefina sheep, and that the milk should be curdled, not with the usual rennet, but with the flower of the wild thistle Cynara cardunculus.
The Torta, as it eventually became, is named after Casar de Cáceres, a small town (pop 5,000) 10 km / 6.2 mi outside the provincial capital. The town has a long tradition of livestock farming; the Cañada Real Soriano Occidental, a major drover's road, runs right through the town along what is now the Calle Larga.
Since the foundation of the DOP, Casar de Cáceres has been its administrative centre. The Museum of Cheese, housed in an old casareño town house, reveals something of the traditional shepherd culture of El Casar and the artisan process behind early versions of the Torta.
The Designation of Origin covers a wide area, stretching from the Tagus river in the north almost to the border with Badajoz province in the south. Twelve cheese factories are represented, accounting for 18 different brands. Though none of these cheese factories is open to the public, all of them have farm-gate sales of cheese and in some cases the products can be tasted.
The great novelty in the world of Torta del Casar is Pastoralia, an ambitious project combining a fully visitable, state-of-the-art cheese factory, a visitor centre and multimedia museum, on an industrial estate on the outskirts of Almoharín. Behind this private initiative are the brothers Pajuelo, whose Torta del Casar (brand name Manjar Extremeño) is the most southerly representative of the PDO. Pastoralia has also a small farm with local breeds where children can see and touch the animals, a miniature dairy where visitors can make their own cheese (when thoroughly cured it will be sent to them by post), as well as tasting room and shop. The centre seems certain to attract tourism, or its newest variety, 'gastro-tourism', to an area that has not traditionally seen very much of either.
Torta on the Road
A possible route through Torta country might begin in Garrovillas de Alconétar, beside the river Tagus and its reservoir, where the Plaza de la Constitución is one of Extremadura's finest squares and a brand new hotel financed by the local government, the Hospedería Puente de Alconétar, makes for a great place to stay.
From there it continues south to Casar de Cáceres and Cáceres itself, whose old town is a citadel entirely carved in stone. The route takes us through boulder-strewn moorlands which in springtime become transformed into lush green pastures speckled with wildflowers. Here and there, among rocky outcrops and stands of holm-oak forest, lie shallow ponds and lakes rich in bird life. Small hermitages (ermitas) dedicated to saints and virgins, stand guard over the open countryside, some of them dating back to the 15th century.
From the capital a minor road strikes southeast through the villages of Torremocha, Valdefuentes, and Almoharín, where the route (and the cheese) comes to an end. Brief detours off the EX206 lead to such little-visited historical gems as the Visigothic basilica of Santa Lucía de Trampal, an exquisite 7th century church in bucolic surroundings, and the Augustine convent of Valdefuentes.
Along the way there are cheeses to buy, and the simple delights of extremeño cooking to sample. Local chefs are understandably passionate about the Torta del Casar and make inventive use of it in their cooking. Claudio Vidal at Casa Claudio in Casar de Cáceres, a young man who has previously worked at Martin Berasategui's famous restaurant in San Sebastián, makes a speciality of ibérico pork sirloin with a sauce made with the local cheese; even better is his delicious 'cuajada' of Torta del Casar served with tomato confit and pine-nut ice cream.
At another level of excellence is Toño Pérez, whose three-Michelin-starred restaurant Atrio, in Cáceres, showcases the cheese in such creations as Cappuccino of foie gras with ceps, sweetcorn crunch and 'air' of Torta del Casar, or a stunningly simple dessert made with quince paste and ripe Torta anointed with a spoonful of vanilla-scented oil.
Pérez loves the the Torta for its smooth, creamy texture, and the characteristic twist of bitterness that comes from its contact with the thistle flower. He is accustomed to taking a Torta with him on his travels to offer as a gift: "whenever I go anywhere I take one, and it always goes down well". Pérez believes the cheese is at its best served as simply as possible: "The best way to enjoy a Torta del Casar is to share it with a group of friends, spreading it on good bread from a wood-fired oven", he says firmly.
Paul Richardson lives on a farm in northern Extremadura. A freelance travel and food writer, he is the author of A Late Dinner: Discovering the Food of Spain.