After decades of prohibition, the Iberian peninsula’s curd cache is spreading — and it’s so much more than Manchego
The central markets in spain’s rural countryside begin at the same time each day. Around 7 a.m., the sun makes quick work of drying the dew off the wild oregano, bringing with it a dusty heat that coats the thistles. Vendors bend the hinges of folding tables and erect tents to protect their heads from the midday burn. Some set up in town squares, others on the lawns of ancient monasteries crawling with vines.
But as recently as the 1980s, this was an encore performance, the legal follow-up to an illicit preamble that began hours prior in the fading black pre-dawn. With the fog still rolling off the mountains, Spanish cheesemakers would assemble before sunrise to defy a government edict that effectively outlawed artisanal cheesemaking. Issued by Francisco Franco, a dictator who ruled from 1939 to 1975, this decree forced much of Spanish cheese production to go underground. Each week in these huddled assemblies, thousands of pounds of cheese changed hands while the government inspectors slept. This black market played host to over a third of the country’s cheese industry, and it lasted for nearly 30 years.
Queso Through the Ages
Even before these mid-century individualists took a stand to protect their livelihood, self-determination has been essential to Spanish cheesemaking. Solitary sheep herders dominate the harsh landscape and have since the 4th century B.C. The job of shepherd, though isolated, offered a decent livelihood on uneven terrain ill-suited to cattle husbandry. It was wool money that sent conquistadors to the New World.
Archaeologists believe a sheep milk cheese similar to Manchego was being made on the Iberian peninsula well before the Romans colonized the region, and monks then perfected the region’s cheesemaking traditions after the Empire fell. Whatever knowledge the monks accumulated, shepherds then disseminated on their yearly peregrinations.
These traditions evolved through the Middle Ages, with each region developing its own unique turography. Sheep cheeses dominated the country’s rugged middle, Blue cheeses were born in the damp caves of the northwest, and runny tortas clotted with cardoon rennet dotted the Extremaduran border with Portugal. In the far climes of the Pyrenees, the fecund Basque Country gained steam.
Spanish cheese stood poised to rival France or Italy in range and bounty, until civil war broke out in 1936. A battle between democracy and fascism waylaid progress, and World War II only prolonged the damage. When Franco assumed control, it was over a country devastated by hunger and poverty, excluded from the Marshall Plan, and desperately in need of an economic boost. His solution was simple: centralize production.
Dairies that trafficked in less than 10,000 liters of milk per day were instructed to sell their output to large-scale manufacturers or cease production. Family operations, the stewards of heritage cheesemaking, had to make a choice: give up on centuries of tradition or go rogue.
The rebels arranged clandestine meetings with brokers and falsely reported that all of their milk production was for family use — which for many households meant claiming to consume hundreds of liters per day. The covert markets set up in lantern-lit squares, the only sounds the clinking of Roman balances and the rustling of cheese paper. Inspectors visited dairies, homes and stores during the day, but found no evidence of this quiet defiance.
The black market eventually became an open secret, so in 1978 (just a few years after Franco’s death) a philanthropist named Miguel Escobar hired Enric Canut to survey the damage. Climbing Catalan bluffs and the hairpin roads of Galicia in his old Citroën Deux Chevaux, Canut found black markets everywhere, and traditions in danger. The new democratic government took heed and slowly began to unravel Franco’s regulations.
Canut worked with the Ministry of Agriculture in 1984 to publish a map of the 48 cheeses he’d discovered while traversing the country’s clutch-busting terrain. In 1990, his map turned into a catalog 82 cheeses long, and in 1996 it became a show at Escobar’s Spanish food festival Alimentaria, boasting 100 surviving cheeses.
The 100 Cheeses of Spain
Making up for lost time, the government began granting certain cheeses Denominación de Origen (DO) status. The first was Roncal, a piquant Basque staple made in Navarre with the raw milk of Rasa and Latxa sheep. Idiazabal, also Basque, was granted DO in 1987 due to the lobbying efforts of Artzai-Gratza, a 116-shepherd collective formed in 1985 to preserve ancient practices. The faint smoke in Idiazabal, achieved with shavings of beech, birch, cherry or local pine, is a nod to the centuries-old habits of these mountain-bound makers.
“[Idiazabal] is made in mountain huts,” says Jess Perrie, an account manager for Brooklyn-based Essex St. Cheese and recipient of a research fellowship to study Basque cheesemaking. “They smoke their Idiazabal to reflect how the cheese was produced in a pot over a fire. The wood smoke would permeate everything in the hut and became an essential element in drying and maturing the cheese.”
Northern Spain’s terroir is one of persistence; respect for an unforgiving land flavors the cheese as much as any fire pit. “Ewe’s milk, like the Basque people, develops a stronger character in the face of adversity,” says Perrie. “The tough grasses and shrubs of the mountaintops produce a more flavorful cheese than that of sheep grazing on the lush green valley floors.”
Lush valley floors are hard to come by in Spain. The climate is dry and arid — average rainfall is 25 inches, not much higher than that of the Southwestern United States, which explains the predominance of small ruminants. While cows consume 70–140 liters of water per day, lactating ewes and does need only three to10. Even the “cow’s milk” cheeses in Spain are typically mixed milk, allowing for the supplementation of sheep or goat milk as needed.
Cow’s milk cheeses are found in coastal regions with heavier rainfall; Mahon hails from the Balearic island of Menorca, where the rainy season lasts 11 months. Rubbed with paprika and olive oil and aged from six months to two years, its paste can range from smooth subtropical fruit to a dry and acerbic crumble.
Other cow cheeses come from the northern states of Cantabria, Asturias and Galicia, and even northwest Castile-Leon, where westerlies bring precipitation in off the Atlantic to the tune of 47 inches per year. Spain’s Blues grow their Penicilium mold in the dank limestone caves of this region — including the peppery Cabrales, the lactic and mineral-rich Picon Bejes-Tresviso, and the more accessible Valdéon, full of sweet molasses spice.
On the mountains of the opposite coast, the milk of Frieisian cattle flavors Puig Pedros. Full of barnyard funk and sea salt blown in on the mistrals, it’s one of the only washed rind cheeses in the country. Bloomy rinds are also rare — DO Flor de Guia is one of the few, with an herbaceous zeal from the flowers of globe artichoke and cardoon used to curdle its milk.
Thistle rennet dominates western Spain, where a large Sephardic Jewish community’s kosher diet gave rise to Spain’s most luxurious cheeses. Torta del Casar and Torta La Serena are two name-protected varieties of this raw near-liquid sheep cheese. The small saucers are bathed in salt until a rind forms, encasing a velvety and vegetal pudding interior that is effervescent, and silky enough to make you go cross-eyed.
Of course it would be remiss not to mention Manchego, recognizable by the basket-weave left on its rind by wicker grass molds. Those smitten with this old sheep standard can expand their horizons with Zamorano, another DO sheep cheese that shares Manchego’s pebbly bite and toasted hazelnut flavor.
Canut’s 100 cheeses also include abundant goat offerings, many concentrated in the southern states of Andalusia and Murcia. It was Murcia, after all, who gave the world Drunken Goat (or Queso de Murcia al Vino, as it is recognized by the DO). Along with Manchego, this aubergine-rinded milky-white wheel brought Spanish cheese back from the dark ages, situating it firmly on the international stage where it sits today.
Spanish Cheese Rebounds
Canut placed Spanish cheese on sure footing, but the road from Franco to the present day — with Manchego in the cheese box at Starbucks and Drunken Goat on Walmart shelves — was aided by other actors, as well.
Cheese imports to the U.S. from Spain increased from 650,000 pounds in 1995 to 23.9 million pounds in 2015. To find the source of this impressive catapult, look no further than one woman on a mission: Michele Buster, co-founder of Forever Cheese, based in Long Island City, NY.
Before Buster helmed one of the U.S.’ largest Mediterranean importers, she studied abroad in Valencia and fell for Manchego. “I just did not like what was offered in the U.S. at that time, so my intention was just to bring that cheese,” she says. Her search for the right Manchego took longer than expected, so her young company imported other cheeses in the meantime, helping to secure DO status for Drunken Goat along the way. It wasn’t until a fateful meeting at a cafe on Madrid’s Gran Via that she found her Manchego.
“[Carlos Corcuera] took me to the garage to get the cheese, as he hadn’t felt comfortable bringing it in,” says Buster, describing her first encounter with Queso Corcuera Manchego. “He cut the box on top of the trunk, in the midst of the gas-fumed garage, sliced into a wheel of the six month El Trigal, and I knew I had found my true love.”
Stories like these are typical in Forever Cheese’s early years. To get their ideal torta, Buster haplessly scoured Alimentaria. On the final day, drowning her dejection in a post-fair dinner, the waiter placed a torta on the table and suddenly, her search was over. At another trade fair, Buster visited the Castile-Leon booth and noticed an oblong goat cheese in the case. She tried it, immediately requested the maker’s contact info, and got him on his cell in minutes. She christened the snowy beauty “Leonora,” for the region it hails from, and today you can find it at cheese shops across the U.S.
“I would say it took four or five years to start building a real foundation,” says Buster. “Spanish cheese at the time we started was really not talked about much.”
Since then, many others have joined the cause. New York’s Essex Street Cheese Co. began researching Manchego in 2008, after finding that cheese counters lacked cohesion on the subject. “Is it raw milk or pasteurized? Is it farmstead or cooperative? Is it waxed?” asks Essex’s Juhl. They found theirs at Finca Sierra La Solana, a pistachio farm making raw, natural-rind farmstead Manchego, where the lambs are born to the gentle sounds of Mariachi music and the cheese is full of juicy pineapple sweetness.
Fernando Rodriquez Aldudo, general manager on the farm, recently helped form the Spanish Cheesemaker’s Society, a group of 30 dairies working to market Spanish cheese. The idea was born over beers at Slow Food’s 2017 Bra Cheese festival, held in Italy.
Relative to the black markets of 30 years ago, things are looking up for Spanish cheesemakers. “I meet new producers all the time, former financial people, lawyers, doctors, who found the calling and want to make cheese,” says Buster.
Things are also looking up for American turophiles, who can find dozens of Spanish offerings, and even more ways to use them. Juhl likes to pair Essex Manchego with pistachios to honor the farm’s terroir, while Perrie finds Basque cheeses shine brightest beside bone-dry Txakoli and Serrano ham. Buster puts Idiazabal in her gnocchi, and spreads MitiCrema sheep cheese on bagels. Spanish classics like Marcona almonds, chorizo and membrillo paste complement everything from Manchego to Roncal, while nutty Pedro Jimenez sherry tames the bite of the northern Blues. Dryer Finos and Amontillados draw wild notes of macadamia, nutmeg and citrus out of Garroxta and Monte Enebro. And a little spicy honey on Mahon can transport you to a sun-soaked market day, heat bearing down, cheese vendors trading unafraid in the unrelenting daylight.
Miticana de Cabra Trifasico Tapa
Serving size 14
1 lb Miticana de Cabra
1 1/3 lb membrillo paste
1 1/3 lb yellow beets, boiled or roasted in advance and allowed to cool
1 1/3 lb red beets, boiled or roasted in advance and allowed to cool
4 cups assorted micro greens
1 bunch frisée 2 cups honey foam (optional; may substitute ½ cup raw honey)
Cut the cheese into round ½-inch thick slices.
Cut the beets into round ½-inch thick slices as well, taking care not to let the red beets touch the yellow beets to avoid color bleeding.
Cube the membrillo into ½-inch chunks.
Place one beet slice down on the serving plate, top with one slice of cheese, then finish with a beet slice of the other color. Top with small strands of microgreens and frisée.
Decorate the serving plate with small rounds of honey foam topped with cubes of membrillo paste; if substituting honey, place a dollop beside each cheese tower and top with a membrillo cube. Adapted from a recipe by Chef Mikel de Luis.
Panna Cotta-Style Sheep Cheesecake
2 lbs Miticrema sheep cream cheese, room temperature
1¾ cup sugar
3 egg yolks
¾ tsp vanilla extract
zest of 1 orange juice of
2 cups heavy cream
7 leaves gelatin, soaked in ice water
2 cups fresh or frozen strawberries, tops trimmed off
1 cup sugar
1 tsp agar agar powder
3 leaves gelatin, soaked in ice water
1 ½ cups finely ground graham cracker crumbs
1 1/3 cup sugar
6 Tbsp butter, melted
1 tsp salt
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.
To make the crust, combine all ingredients in a bowl, then press into the bottom of a 9 x 9 in. square baking pan. Bake at 375 degrees for 7 minutes, then remove to a wire rack and cool completely.
To make the strawberry topping, place the strawberries, sugar and agar agar in a medium saucepan over medium heat and cook, stirring occasionally, until the sugar is dissolved, about 5 minutes. Remove from heat and add the gelatin leaves, stirring to incorporate. Purée the mixture in a blender, then set aside to cool and set at room temperature.
To make the cheesecake, heat the cream in a small saucepan over medium heat to 140 degrees F — do not let it boil. Remove from heat and add the gelatin leaves, stirring to dissolve. Let cool at room temperature. Meanwhile, purée the cheese, sugar, egg yolk, vanilla extract, orange zest and lemon juice in a blender, food processor or stand mixer until thoroughly combined, taking care not to overmix. Slowly add the heavy cream to the egg mixture little by little, stirring between each addition, until thoroughly combined.
Pour the cheesecake mixture into the prepared crust. Pour the room temperature strawberry mixture on top of it. Cover and refrigerate overnight, removing from the fridge one hour before serving. Adapted from a recipe by Chef Mikel De Luis.