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Spain’s Mountain Cheeses from Cantabria

A bright future through agro-tourism

Sheeps in La Hermida pass. Luis Carré/©ICEX

Sheeps in La Hermida pass. Luis Carré/©ICEX

Author: Jon Warren/©ICEX

Jon Warren took a route of discovery through Cantabria to the Picos de Europa mountain range in search of an insight into the designation of origin cheeses of the region.

 

Climbing over rocks and maneuvering past bolders, Luis drove his 4x4 high into the hills. After a 10-minute drive, we stopped on the edge of a sheer cliff face with breathtaking views of the valley below. With 12 of his cheeses in a red plastic crate propped on his shoulder, Luis stooped down and unlocked a small metal door into the side of the mountain.

Inside it was dark, damp and perilously slippery as we ducked under the low ceiling of mould covered rock and navigated our way deep into the mountainside. All my fears of claustrophobia were put to one side as the excitement of what we reached came into sight through the dim light of our head torches.

Hundreds and hundreds of cheeses were placed on wooden tables either side of us. Sliding down a large bolder and through a narrow gap in the rock, we arrived at what Luis described as the sala de castillos, a huge chamber packed full of maturing cheeses.

This is the story of a centuries old tradition of maturing cheeses in caves and how its future is being given a lifeline through agro-tourism.

Queso Picón Bejes-Tresviso

Mountain villages at Liébana Valley. Luis Carré/©ICEX

I arrived at Bejes, a tiny village high in the Cantabrian mountains with a population of just 72 residents. I had an appointment with Luis Alberto Alles Campo, the first president of the designation of Picón cheeses and a fine artisan producer of the famous blue cheese Picón Bejes-Tresviso, one of three designation of origin cheeses in Cantabria.

Traditionally, every single family in the village was making this traditional Spanish blue cheese. “There were more than 20 houses here making cheese in their kitchens, every drop of milk was being used to make cheese” reports Luis. “People used to have a copper bucket and would add the milk and rennet. Then they would dip in their finger to gauge the temperature as it started to coagulate and leave the cheeses to dry on the windowsill underneath a cloth. Back then, 10 kilos was a lot of cheese. Now we can make 100 kilos a day,” he explained. Cheese making was very important especially during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) as people were hungry and everyone in the village was able to milk their cows and make cheese for food and to sell to other regions.

Then, in 1987 came the introduction of designation of origins and as regularly occurs, the benefits of regulation came with pitfalls. “Before 1987, making cheese could all be done in the kitchen. With the regulations of the denomination, everything was then controlled and separated rooms were required,” explained Luis.

Maturing in caves

One of the special features of Bejes-Tresviso is that the cheese is matured in caves. The oldest record to support the origins of this custom for maturing the cheeses goes back many centuries. In 1737, they said that each neighbour in the village had to take a table to the caves every year. Historians are not sure why there would be a rule to take a table to the caves other than to put the cheeses on.

It is a condition of the designation of origin that the cheeses must be matured in natural caves between 500 and 2,000 metres above sea level. In exceptional circumstances and with written approval, the law may be lifted temporarily.

Cabrales, a cheese famous in nearby Asturias is similar to Bejes-Tresviso and is also matured in caves. In fact, it was only when Spain divided into autonomous communities that the cheeses were renamed according to their new autonomies. “They are first cousins although they say Cabrales is slightly stronger than our cheese” explained Luis.

Picón Bejes-Tresviso cheeses are matured in mountain caves. Luis Carré/©ICEX

Apart from customs and the history books, maturing cheeses in caves had their significant benefits. The caves provide a constant temperature and humidity, which are ideal conditions for maturing cheese. However, each cave does not provide the same conditions as the next. Some caves have their doors south facing which means they get a lot of sun during the summer while north facing caves get very cool. Therefore, a deep cave is preferable where the temperatures and humidity are more regulated.

How it is made

Luis’s cheese is made principally from unpasteurized cows milk but they are permitted to use cow, sheep or goat’s milk or all three. The milk is then heated to between 23 and 24°C before adding rennet (a concentration of natural animal intestine which coagulates the milk). Then after one and a half hour, it is ready to be cut into chickpea sized grains. The whey is disposed with or fed to cows or pigs. The curd grains are then loosely put into molds (to allow penicillin spores to grow), salted and dried for 20 to 22 days.

It then goes up to the caves for two months of maturing. When it comes back, it is then washed in water (to get rid of any impurities from the cave) labeled and ready for sale. The whole process takes approximately three months.

If doesn’t smell, its not authentic

Many cheeses were originally wrapped in a maple leaf but Luis warns against buying these. Instead, the ticket on the silver foil wrapping confirms that it is authentic and guarantees that it is from the designation of origin.

Being artisan, each one will vary to the next one. Luis sliced one of his cheeses open and explained the importance of air reaching within the cheese to allow the Penicillin roqueforti fungus to grow. “As soon as it is exposed to air, it will turn a blue green colour very quickly as the fungus spreads.” The cheese is intense and spicy in flavour, crumbly in texture and has a deep pungent aroma. Luis quips that he is accustomed to the smell of the cheese and that it must smell or else it will not be good. “If it doesn’t smell, it’s not authentic,” he smiles.

Quesucos de Liébana

Close by to Bejes, Pendes is a small village producing quesucos de Liébana, another designation of origin cheese from the region. Pedro Antonio Velarde Collado is one of six producers of quesucos de Liébana, a buttery and aromatic cheese which contrasts with the powerful Bejes Tresviso. A firm and compact cheese, it can be smoked or unsmoked and comes in small sizes of between 8 to 12 cm in diameter.

Agro-tourism – a complimentary income

Despite his cheese winning the World Cheese Contest in 2010 and some small export to Holland and Scotland, around 60% of Luis’s cheeses at his dairy Quesería Alles are sold through agro-tourism and this is typical of many of Cantabria’s producers.

Within the Cantabrian DO cheese region, there are currently only 16 producers from what used to be over one hundred dairies back before the designation of origin was introduced. The current 16 are divided as follows: Picón Bejes-Tresviso (5), quesucos de Liébana (6), Queso Nata de Cantabria (5).

When I visited Luis, he was midway through major building works to incorporate a visitor centre alongside the dairy. He showed me the work in progress, where guests would be able to see the cheese making live and a seating area for sampling his cheeses. He also talked of work to create a more practical means of guests visiting the caves and that plans had been approved. Luis was keen to get both projects finished as soon as possible, which depended largely on an injection of government funding. “I’m keen to collaborate with everyone,” he said.

Pedro Antonio in nearby Pendes with his quesucos de Liébana has already developed the agro-tourism side of his operation with a range of guided tours as well as the possibility to see Luis Alberto Alles, an artisan producer of the blue cheese Picón Bejes-Tresviso. Luis Carré/©ICEXthe cheese making in operation including the smoking process.

There is a strong growing sign that further agro-tourism could provide a vital boost for the industry. From my time with Luis, agro-tourism experiences such as visiting the caves offer a wonderful and vibrant opportunity to get a genuine up-close insight into an artisan product of the highest quality.

A long life cheese

“If you look at the grave stones, you will see how long people live,” Luis explained. “People live very long lives here, a large proportion well into the nineties and many people live to over 100 years old. I don’t know why but it grabs one’s attention! “My father is in his nineties and he eats the cheese with every meal. They say that the natural penicillin bacteria in the cheese keep people healthy.”

Before leaving, Luis showed no lack of enthusiasm pointing to a map and the caves we had visited together. “We’ve got even deeper caves higher in the hills, beautiful caves which are gems for maturing the cheese. This one here is at 1100 metres”, he proudly announced. With such a passion for his cheese and natural environment, he makes the perfect host.

I asked Luis what he thought about the future of the cheese. “I think the future is more tourism to get an added value from the product,” he concluded. With his forthcoming visitor area, it will surely secure his award winning cheese continues to be celebrated for a long time to come.

CV

Jon Warren is the founder of San Sebastian Food, a specialist food and wine travel outfit based in San Sebastián, Northern Spain.

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