This month, our man on the ground in Spain, Paul Richardson, heads to Castile to meet the extended Santos family. In a town that has 580 habitants but more than 10,000 sheep, it is the perfect place to make a range of cheese, including the 'creamy one', the cremoso.
The Cañrejal Cremoso won a Super Gold award in 2021/2022 at the World Cheese Awards and features on cheeseboards in renowned Spanish restaurants such as Iñigo Errechu in Madrid and Lera in Zamora.
This is a cheese that you need to know about.
As I cut into the rind of my Cañarejal Cremoso I can’t stop thinking about Monty Python’s cheese sketch.
Python fans won’t need reminding, but the sketch in question features John Cleese as a customer in a cheese shop that turns out to have, for a cheese shop, surprisingly little cheese. After a long interrogation the shop assistant finally admits that they do in fact have one cheese - but it’s very runny. Possibly too runny.
‘I don’t care how fxxxing runny it is -- bring it forth with all speed’, replies the irritated customer.
The reason I’m giggling on my own in the kitchen is that Cañarejal Cremoso is very runny indeed. This raw-milk sheep’s cheese, one of the stars of Brindisa’s Spanish cheese selection, is so gorgeously gooey that when you cut open the soft white rind the interior is a pool of creaminess begging to be scooped out with crusty bread, crunchy vegetable crudités, or whatever else you might have to hand.
It’s a fascinating product that might remind cheese cognoscenti of the Torta del Casar – and, in fact, it turns out to have been inspired in part by the famous Torta from Extremadura. Beyond the fact that both are Spanish raw-milk sheep’s cheeses and both use vegetable rennet derived from the thistle, however, the two are as different as, well, chalk and cheese. ‘Cremoso’ is a much smaller, more compact cheese than the Torta and the edible rind has a white penicillium bloom similar to that of Brie. Its unctuous interior is whiter in colour and has a milder, less acid flavour. It’s also not made anywhere near Extremadura but in a small agricultural town called Pollos, on the high plains of Castile a few miles from Tordesillas (best known for the 1494 treaty that effectively divvied up the known world between Spain and Portugal).
It’s hard to overestimate the importance of sheep in the economic history of Castile, and Pollos maintains something of that importance – the town has 580 inhabitants but more than 10,000 sheep.
I headed up there recently to visit the dairy and meet the extended Santos family, who make a range of four very different cheeses including an excellent manchego-type hard cheese, tangy and nutty-textured, and a soft-centred mantecoso as well as the famous ‘creamy one’ (cremoso).
On the wall of the factory shop on the outskirts of Pollos I see framed certificates from various cheese contests in Spain and abroad, including a Super Gold for the Cremoso in the 2021/2022 edition of the World Cheese Awards.
Above the counter hangs an old black-and-white photograph of a serious-looking couple in their Sunday best, the gentleman in a black jacket, the lady in a black pillbox hat with a veil. This is Rafael Santos, grandfather of the current owners, who was originally from Segovia but came to Pollos in the 1920s to grow sugar beet and potatoes, and his wife Isabel, a local girl. Behind this picture lies a family saga. The patriarch Rafael had two sons, Luis and Carlos. Ramón, son of Luis, now runs the cheese-making operation at Cañarejal while his brother José Luis and cousin Carlos are in charge of the agricultural part of the business.
When I pitch up at the factory Ramón is about to begin making a batch of Cremoso, allowing me a close-up view of the routine he follows day in, day out. An amiable, large-limbed, softly-spoken man, he is dressed in the standard cheesemaker’s uniform of white wellington boots, cream-coloured rubber apron and cotton dairyman’s hat.
In a stainless steel vat in the factory’s main room, 600 litres of this morning’s milk is swirling around at a temperature of 26C - several degrees lower than is usually required for curdling. Ramón tells me the family owns a herd of 2000 sheep belonging to the Assaf breed, a long-eared, fat-tailed variety known for its hardiness and high milk production. The animals divide their time between the large barns here at the factory, where their diet is based on alfalfa, barley and mixed fodder, and the rich pastures of a nearby farm where they’re taken to graze during the summer months. The advantage of having the sheep living on the premises, says Ramón, is that the milk can be piped from the milking room directly into the vats.
Checking his mobile phone, he pours a flask of rennet into the vat and immediately notes down the time on a clipboard. Making this kind of delicate cheese is a high-precision business and every single action is meticulously timed and recorded.
While we wait for the rennet to take effect, Ramón fills me in on the recent history of the company. For many years the family sold their sheep’s milk to a local cooperative, until the price paid became unviable and in 1996 they decided to add value by setting up a cheese dairy. Up to that point Ramón had worked on the livestock side and had little idea of the complexities of cheesemaking, but after various courses and an apprenticeship with Catalan cheese guru Valeri Ausas he was ready to try his hand.
‘Our first effort was a manchego type. We made it practically in the bathtub!’ he tells me with a smile.
I peer into the vat to see that the milk has curdled and the curds are being diced by long blades that constantly turn in the pale yellow liquid. Now Ramón opens a sluice to drain off the whey, and fresh water gushes into the vat from above. This technique, known as ‘washing’, increases the curds’ moisture content and helps bring about the luscious texture of the finished cheese.
For the next phase, on to the scene come Nerea and Alberto, from Tordesillas and Pollos respectively and two of the seven full-time staff at Cañarejal. The curds are now in a shallow tank, into which Nerea and Alberto and Ramón dip their arms to fill small basket moulds. From here the cheeses will be dunked in a saline solution for one hour, removed to the refrigerated curing rooms, and in 25 days they’re ready for sale.
There’s a gentle, rhythmic sloshing as the workers tap the moulds twice to drain off excess whey – a gesture honed into a streamlined, almost mechanical routine. I notice these people’s skin is smooth and their complexions taut and healthy - perhaps owing to their daily contact with natural whey. Together they produce 20,400 kilos of Cremoso every year, and all of it according to these scrupulously hands-on, artisanal methods.
While they work away, I open the Brindisa website on my phone to check on the Cremoso’s presence in the UK. There it is, holding its own among some of the best Spanish sheep’s cheeses on the market – among them Idiazabal, Torta de Barros and the stunning La Retorta from Finca Pascualete in Extremadura. In the comments section one Brindisa client sums up their opinion succinctly: ‘superb cheese’.
In a region with no tradition of Torta-type cheeses, the fashion for gooey interiors has quickly caught on among the cheesemakers of Castile. One dairy in the vicinity of Pollos now even makes a Torta-type whose rind is washed with local Rueda wine. The Cremoso was once served at the legendary El Bulli, and now features on cheeseboards in renowned Spanish restaurants such as Iñigo Errechu in Madrid and Lera in Zamora. As big a hit in its native land as in the United Kingdom, it can be found in prestigious Madrid cheese-shops like Cultivo and Poncelet.
The cheeses are now heading for the curing rooms and Ramón, who gets up at 6.45am every single day of the year, is heading home to rest.
Leaving Pollos towards the motorway I catch sight of a van bearing the Cañarejal label, which shows a herd of sheep advancing across a field and the tag-line El queso es un placer que conviene compartir – ‘cheese is a pleasure it’s a good idea to share’. Of course this is absolutely true. But later, at home, as I dunk my first bread stick into the rich oozy centre of the Cremoso, I’m tempted to ignore this message and keep it all for myself.
You can buy this incredible cheese via Brindisa here.