Brindisa has been working and receiving delicious goat's cheese from the García family for just under a decade. In January, our man on the ground in Spain, Paul Richardson, headed out to the small town of El Barraco to meet the family at their dairy just North-West of Madrid.
The small town of El Barraco, half-an-hour outside Ávila at 1008 metres above sea level, nestles between two mountain ranges, the Sierra de la Paramera and the great dark wall of the Sierra de Gredos. I drove there on a cloudless January day when the temperature hovered above zero during the daylight hours, plunging to well below freezing when the sun went down.
The mountain landscape around Ávila is austerely beautiful, almost colourless in its washed-out winter shades of grey and brown, with leafless trees and massive granite boulders studding the steep hillsides. Herds of fierce-looking horned black cattle - the famous avileña negra ibérica breed - graze in the sheltered valleys.
My final destination, the Elvira García cheese dairy, stands on a patch of rough ground at the edge of El Barraco where the town fizzles out into brick-built warehouses and stables. Among the granite rocks and holm-oak trees is a water trough; cattle of various colours and breeds stand in stone-walled enclosures. No doubt about it, this is livestock country. The front wall of the factory, a simple pitch-roofed construction, bears a sign with the Elvira García logo, a stylised rendering of snowy peaks and the legend ‘quesos afinados de autor’.
The phrase needs a little unpacking: afinados in Spanish means ‘refined’ or ‘matured’, while autor might be ‘author’ or ‘artist’ – the subtext being that what goes on here is at several removes from the impersonal, business-driven processes of industrial cheesemaking.
A Family Affair
Like so many of Spain’s top craft food producers, Elvira García is a family affair. The business is run by two brothers, Francisco and Jesús Alía García, though the name they chose for it is that of their mother, Elvira.
As we stand outside in the crisp mountain air Francisco, a man in his 40s with a solid country build, gives me the lowdown on the company, which came into being in 2012 though its origins lie at least a generation further back. In 1977 his father, a subsistence farmer and woodsman, bought a herd of 40 goats, eventually selling milk and meat to the new cooperative in El Barraco. When this arrangement became economically unviable, the family hit on a new idea: ‘Why don’t we try to make cheese?’ There was a precedent in the Alía family: Elvira’s father had always kept a few goats and Francisco’s great-aunt Cipriana made cheese in her kitchen at home.
Much work remained to do, however, before the plan could come to fruition. The family’s goats had been stabled in rustic stone huts; the milking was still done by hand. Though he had grown up as a goatherd, Francisco now launched himself wholeheartedly into the art and science of artisan cheesemaking, with courses and apprenticeships under master affineurs in France and Switzerland. Pepe Bada, maker of the legendary raw-milk Cabrales ‘Teyedu’ and one of his professional heroes, invited him to Asturias to learn the secrets of blue cheese. ‘Pepe even took me to his cheese cave in the mountains for a personal blessing from the spirit of the cave!’ Francisco remembers with a smile.
Fast-forward a very few years and Elvira García is one of Spain’s most highly-regarded craft queserías, its products featuring on cheeseboards at Michelin-starred restaurants such as Deessa and Santceloni in Madrid, and Ricard Camarena in Valencia.
Inside the Dairy
Entering the dairy, I discover a wonderland of cheeses in all shapes and sizes - round and square and heart-shaped, rolled into balls like truffles or patted into brick-like rectangles, some of them covered with a soft white bloom, others coloured grey with charcoal or flecked with orange pimentón. Pinned on the cork board I see a sheaf of orders from Brindisa in London, who have proudly represented Elvira García in the UK since its earliest days.
For a small company its product range is surprisingly wide. There are French-style lactic cheeses like Luna Negra, rind-washed Musgo Lavado and the nuttily delicious Canto de Gredos and curious specialities like Fortín, a goat’s-milk version of the strongly piquant Asturian cheese Casín. With the exception of the queso fresco, all their cheeses are made with raw milk. ‘Our main ingredient is so clean and healthy, to pasteurise it would be a crime’, says my host as we peer into a vat of fragrant, swirling milk.
Even in a business used to doing things with clockwork precision, the brothers’ approach to cheesemaking is unusually meticulous. From the automated milking shed, the goats’ milk is pumped through an underground pipe directly to the dairy, ensuring total hygiene. It then undergoes a ‘pre-maturing’ at 10-12C to encourage the flavours to develop even before rennet is added. ‘What we look for are the subtleties of the milk; what we want is to draw all the nectar out of it’, Francisco confides.
The food culture of Ávila province is based on proteins - essentially red meat and pulses in generous quantities as fuel against the biting cold of this mountain climate. The high points of local cuisine are the slabs of avileña beef, preferably grilled over coals, and the superb white judión beans from El Barco de Ávila, fat as a human thumb, which are low-simmered with various cuts of pork, garlic, chorizo and morcilla. Though goats are a common sight in rural Ávila, fine cheese is not often seen on domestic dining-tables around here – except of course in the Alía García household. Here it’s a moveable feast, eaten both at the start of the meal and, in the French style, as part of the dessert course.
In the Milk Shed
From the dairy’s big window, the brooding Sierra de Gredos looms up in the darkening afternoon. Down below is the farmyard where, in a series of brick barns, Elvíra García’s 650 goats are settling in for the night. Francisco takes me through the milking shed, past the site of a future cheese cave hollowed out of the rock under the factory, and into the barn where the animals stand in a crowd, some of them softly bleating at each other as if to pass the time. The coats of these malagueña goats are soft and silky, coloured in designer shades of pale grey, chestnut brown and beige.
‘We’re a very animal-oriented cheese dairy. Tied to our goats by hand and foot, we are!’, laughs Jesús, Francisco’s brother and the man in charge of the livestock end of the operation. Many of these beauties are daughters of his father’s original herd, he says.
We lean on the gate to watch them observing us with their inquisitive eyes. Their daily routine, I learn, involves an early start at 6am, milking both morning and night, and a well-balanced diet based on oats, alfalfa and barley straw, all sourced locally. Their favourite special-occasion treat is orange pulp in dried, granulated form. On a fine day they might be taken off on an excursion by lorry to graze in the pastures of nearby Iruela valley.
These look to me like some very spoiled goats. I notice several of them rubbing themselves against a large revolving brush attached to the wall. Jesús tells me this device is the very latest in wellness treatments for livestock, a massage proven to relax the animals and reduce levels of stress among the herd.
Back at the office, Francisco removes the wax-paper wrapping from a Luna Negra, one of Elvira García’s flagship cheeses and a prize-winner year after year at the World Cheese Awards. Its light coating of natural charcoal, far from being an add-on or extraneous element, has the effect of softening the natural acidity of this lactic cheese. Now I see what he means by ‘the subtleties of the milk’: it’s creamy-tasting on the palate, yet clean-as-a-whistle, with an elegant freshness that has you reaching for another slice… and another… and maybe just one more.
I set off for home as the last winter light is fading on the Gredos mountains and the temperature is dropping like a stone.
‘We are non-conformists. We are always looking to improve the way we do things. We want perfection!’ says Francisco on the doorstep, by way of a farewell. From anyone else It might sound like boasting - but after what I’ve seen and tasted today, I’m more than happy to agree.
Shop the Brindisa range of Elvira Garcia goat's cheeses here.