Ned Palmer talks cheese and wine and we get hungry
Wednesday 27 April 2022
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Are the Spanish big cheese lovers? According to my informant Alvaro Carral, one time manager of Neal’s Yard Dairy’s Covent Garden shop and now a cheesemaker and educator in his home region of Cantabria: yes. After the post dinner cheeseboard, he tells me, many Spaniards enjoy a finisher of some queso fresco with membrillo – Spanish quince paste. If a double cheese course doesn’t show a big love for cheese, I don’t know what does.
Queso fresco, a simple, clean delicately flavoured cheese, made without starter culture or rennet and eaten at around three days old, is found in every Spanish fridge. It is eaten for breakfast, or as a Catalonian dessert mel i mato – honey and cheese, or in Alvaro’s home region with salted anchovies – anchoas – as a heartening mid-morning snack.
The other cheese you’ll find in every Spanish fridge is Manchego, the hard Spanish sheep’s cheese named for its home region La Mancha. In its generic form it is made all over Spain, comparable in its ubiquity, to Cheddar in the UK. Also, like Cheddar, the market in Spain and abroad is dominated by less complex and less fulfilling industrial versions.
You can find artisan Manchego too though – it’s had its own PDO (protected domain of origin) since 1984. One of my favourites is called 1605, for the year Cervantes wrote Don Quixote. At eleven months the cheese has a fudgy texture shot through with crunchy crystals and flavours of earth, hay and toasted caramelised almonds. Try it with one of the robust spicy reds of its home region. As the old sommeliers never tire of saying, what grows together goes together.
There are more traditional Spanish cheeses to try than Manchego. One of my favourites is a PDO blue cheese called Cabrales made in the Asturian bit of the rugged Picos de Europa mountains. For most of the year it’s made from cow’s milk, but in the Spring and Summer when the less tractable goats and sheep give milk, the cheese is made with a mix of all three. It’s eye-wateringly intense, its fiery flavour producing a sharp ammoniac sting in the back of the nose. Eating it and its sister cheeses Picon, made next door in Cantabria, and Valdeon made in Castilla y Leon, is what I call extreme cheesing.
Spain is enjoying a burgeoning new wave of cheesemaking. At this year’s World Cheese Awards an Andalusian example called Olavidia was declared the world’s best cheese. It’s a higher moisture mould ripened lactic goat’s cheese, which is not a traditional Spanish style as higher moisture cheeses don’t tend to keep so well in a hot climate. Olavidia deserves its win - it has a delicate balanced nutty flavour, a lush creamy texture, fresh acidity and a long clean finish. It also sports a line of ash through its centre, reminiscent of the alpine cow’s milk cheese Morbier. Try it with a glass of Cava for an exciting sparkly mousse in the mouth.
Alvaro now makes cheeses with his wife Maria’s family, who have been dairying for three generations. They range from the classic queso fresco to the more new-wavy Barneiza, a meltingly soft cow’s milk with a very delicate buttery flavour, a bit like the Italian Stracchino, and the more mature mould ripened Divirim with vegetal earthy and cellary notes. I like them with a gently effervescent white from the Basque country and Asturias called Txakoli, hence the challenging spelling. Txakoli which like the local cider is poured from a height to give it more fizz, tends to be drunk young, as a simple refreshing drink with bright acidity, but you can find older more complex examples aged in oak or with some lees contact – adding a funky complexity to the flavour.
From the new wave lactic goat’s to the traditional blues and hard sheep’s, Spain offers an array of cheeses that will keep you busy for at least one lifetime. Don’t forget to enjoy them like a Spaniard and take that second cheese course.
Alvaro makes cheese at his wife’s family dairy La Jaradilla in the little Cantabrian village of Selaya. He plans to offer cheese and butter making courses for visitors. I will be there as soon as they open.
You can buy excellent Spanish cheeses both new-wave and traditional from Brindisa.
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