Adapting tradition to current times: keys to the international expansion of Lácteos Martínez.
Author: Rodrigo García Fernández/©ICEX.
Publication Date: 06 Jun 2012
Over 50 years of cheese-making, combining the traditional goats’ cheese recipe from Los Cameros mountains (La Rioja) with more diverse options that suit a varied demand. This is the history of Lácteos Martínez in a nutshell, together with their commitment to raw material quality and their increasing presence in international markets.
The economy of Haro, the wine-producing capital of the region of La Rioja Alta, has much more than just its famous cellars. One example is the cheese factory Lácteos Martínez, one of the strongest companies in the sector in northern Spain. It recently celebrated its 50th anniversary, which provides the perfect excuse to analyze its history and plans for the future.
Sonia Martínez is the company’s commercial manager and is part of the board of directors, together with her three siblings. If we talk to her we quickly realize that she is dedicated to the business world and is passionate about the products she defends so diligently. “Our parents gave the four of us the mission to spearhead the growth and development of the family company, which was established in 1961.”
That year, a dream that is closely connected with her homeland, La Rioja, began. Jesús and Justa, Sonia’s parents, were working in Bilbao (Basque Country, 100 km / 62 mi from Haro) when they got the opportunity they had been waiting for: to return to their land of origin. They came back with a project in mind – to recover a culinary memory from their childhood: “Some of my father’s ancestors came from a region in the mountains called Los Cameros, where special cheese was made for centuries, with goats’ milk from small herds, almost exclusively produced for their own consumption,” Sonia tells us.
Origin and history
The cheese factory was established in the dynamic city of Haro, a communication hub between Castile-Leon, La Rioja and the Basque Country. Tradition was the priority from the outset, as they got the milk from native goats: “The company did not have its own herd but it collected the milk from herds in the towns near Haro, and from the region of Los Cameros. It gradually grew and ended up using almost all the milk coming from the region’s goats. That is why one of the cheeses is called Los Cameros – currently our most famous one.
The years went by and the company grew, but they never left tradition aside. Sonia explains it in detail: “Milk ferments have experienced a spectacular evolution over the past two decades, so the process of making cheese has changed. But it is true that there are several aspects of traditional cheese-making that our company has wanted to preserve over time, and in some ways they affect our products’ personality. For example, we still like to use natural rennet. This is not as common in cheese factories with a large production volume, as they tend to choose genetically engineered or microbial rennet.”
Another trademark of their products is that they use natural mold in the ageing stage, to create natural rinds and to produce very particular aromas. “We know that the mold treatment is very delicate but we work with professionals who know everything about it. We control the growth of the mold by dipping the cheese in olive oil, which is one of the most natural anti-mold products.”
DOP Queso Camerano
This great effort to keep the cheese-making tradition alive has brought them another great achievement: the creation of DOP Queso Camerano cheese. This great effort to keep the cheese-making tradition alive has brought them another great achievement: the creation of Protected Designation of Origin Queso Camerano cheese. The company Lácteos Martínez actively participated in the creation of this quality mark, in a collaboration project with La Rioja University and the Government of La Rioja, to recover the historical recipe of Camerano cheese. The study included historical research that took them back to the 12th century, when Gonzalo de Berceo (the first known writer Spanish) mentioned Camerano cheese in some of his works.
Lácteos Martínez currently markets two products under the DOP quality mark: aged and semi-aged Los Cameros cheese. According to Sonia Martínez, “we must admit that it is cheese with limited production because it can only be manufactured with goats’ milk from certain regions in La Rioja, but it is true that it is very popular in international markets because the protected designation of origin mark helps to market it, and this enables us to present our other cheeses.”
Entering new markets
Lácteos Martínez’s range of products includes many references and formats, which adapt to new markets trends and innovative formats aimed at groups of professionals. Sonia Martínez admits that “most of our international clients ask for our 100% sheep’s milk aged cheese, because it is the most famous type of Spanish cheese abroad. Distributors look for cheese that stands out from other sheep’s cheese made in Europe, but unpressed or soft cheese. Mixed milk cheese, which we market already cut and ready to eat, is also very popular.”
Europe is their natural export market. “They are popular in countries where there is a long tradition of consuming dairy products, such as Germany, the UK, the Netherlands, Denmark... but we are also starting to work with the Russian market and gradually entering the US. Our next goal includes two more regions: Central and South America. Venezuela and Mexico are two countries that consume a lot of cheese and we want to be present there in the next few years.”
Regarding distribution channels, Lácteos Martínez tries to use a combination in order to make the most of every opportunity: “We have special formats for the hotel & catering sector, retail or specialized stores and for large-scale distribution. Our strong point, in any case, is our relationship with importers who distribute in specialized stores, where there is a more personal relationship with the client and we can answer any questions about the product and show how we are different from the competition,” Sonia explains.
Is it necessary to have special certifications to enter new markets? “We have different certifications that we use as a way of introducing our company (ISO 9000, ISO 14000), and we comply with all the requirements set out by the European Union, whose regulations may be the strictest in the world. However, the best way to present our production process to large clients is to show them round the plant itself, by inviting them to discover first hand the internal quality control methodology that we have developed.” These visits are not only available to professionals – tourists and cheese lovers can also visit the cheese factory every Saturday from April to October.
The Martínez family has managed to make their parents’ dream international, and they have also helped to make La Rioja known also as a land of cheese. And of course, their entrepreneurial spirit is as strong as ever, and as well as the well-established cheese project, the family has embarked on two new adventures now: production and marketing of organic extra virgin olive oil, under the make Autrigón, with the PDO Aceite de La Rioja quality mark; and of course, wine – the Señorío de Cameros cellar. Wine, cheese and olive oil, all from the same family. A real foodie temptation.
Rodrigo García Fernández is specialist food journalist and editorial coordinator of www.foodsfromspain.com.