Today we are shining a light on the producer of one of our delicious semi cured goat's cheese's made with pasteurised goats' milk from the rare breed Payoya goat, indigenous to the mountain pastures of the Sierra de Grazalema.
Here is what Paul Richardson has to say about his visit to the factory.
Getting there is half the fun. An hour out of Cádiz towards Ronda, a gap-toothed mountain range looms up on the horizon. From Arcos de la Frontera the road winds upwards between crags stippled with wild olive, rock-rose and broom. The wide-screen views remind me fleetingly of the Picos de Europa in Asturias, or maybe Mallorca’s Serra de Tramuntana. Up here the air is cool, but on a late-September morning the sun is piercingly bright.
For anyone who thinks Cádiz province is all sherry, fried fish and beaches, the Sierra de Grazalema has a number of surprises in store. One is the lush greenness of the landscape, fruit of the rain-bearing weather systems that push in from the Atlantic, dumping their load on Grazalema. Another is a world-beating cheese with a striking name and a fascinating back-story.
A series of whitewashed towns of decreasing size - Villamartín, Ubrique, Benaocaz, El Bosque – leads me finally to Villaluenga del Rosario, a picturesque cluster of white houses nestling under a mighty crag at 858 metres above sea level. This village of around 250 permanent residents happens to be not just the smallest, but also the highest municipality in the province.
Just beside the village bus-stop stands a factory gate with the word ‘Queso’ on one side and ‘Payoyo’ on the other: I’ve arrived at the home of that world-beating cheese.
Payoyo is one of those brand-names that sticks in your mind. For the last 20 years I’ve been seeing it in food shops and on restaurant menus all over Spain – and also at Brindisa in London, who were among Payoyo’s first champions back in the late 1990s.
Full disclosure time: I’m a fan. Among my top ten quesos was always their cured goat’s cheese rubbed with Ibérico pork lard and stuck with rosemary leaves, which lend it a fabulous aroma. Only a few days ago at Casa Manteca in Cádiz, I nibbled a slice of aged Payoyo sheep’s cheese along with a glass of fine old amontillado sherry. So being here in Villaluenga feels a little like a pilgrimage.
The Payoyo story shows what entrepreneurial dynamism can be found even in a remote corner of rural Spain. The saga begins in 1997, when Grazalema locals Carlos Ríos and Andrés Piña founded what would be the first commercial cheese dairy of any size in the region, patenting ‘Payoyo’ (for centuries the unofficial nickname for the inhabitants of Villaluenga) as their exclusive brand name.
Artisan cheeses had long been made in these mountains. A photograph in the factory shop shows Andrés’ father Rafael working with one of the esparto grass cheese-moulds once used by shepherds in their cabañas high in the hills. But this new venture would bring local cheesemaking firmly into the 21st century. The company handles up to 7000 litres of milk per day and is scrupulous, not to say obsessive about hygiene. According to Carlos’ daughter Ana, who studied biology at the University of Seville and is now a key member of the team, samples from each of its 39 suppliers are taken and analysed every single day.
Payoyo uses the milk not only of payoya-montejaqueña goats (the iconic local breed), but also of other Andalucian varieties such as the malagueña, florida and murciano-granadina, as well as merino sheep’s milk - all of it hailing from within a radius of 50 kilometres.
As we walk through white-tiled rooms brimful of delicious dairy-smells, Andrés explains that Payoyo is essentially a streamlined version of the old-fashioned country cheeses of Grazalema. Where his father’s generation might have brined the cheeses in clay urns, here it happens in stainless-steel vats. Yet in many respects this remains a craft product: animal rennet is still used and much of the process is un-mechanised.
The finished cheeses, which weigh in at around two kilos, range from the classic goat and sheep’s cheeses, both cured and semi-cured, to variations on the theme featuring pimentón, ibérico lard, rosemary, and wheat bran. (The use of bran echoes a traditional practice around these parts, cheeses often being stored in a bran-tub.) They have in common a reverberant, creamy flavour with overtones of fresh pasture – and a touch of the aromatic shrubs I’ve seen growing on the mountain slopes hereabouts.
From modest beginnings Payoyo has gone from strength to strength, garnering prizes year after year at the world’s major food fairs. Spanish chefs fall over themselves to feature the cheese in their culinary creations. To give just two examples, Carles Abellà of Tapaç24 in Barcelona uses it in a sandwich with sobrassada; and Julio Vázquez at El Campero in Barbate makes a stunning salad with green sprouts, baby asparagus, sweet-sour beetroot, mojama vinaigrette, and ‘spherifications’ of semi-cured Payoyo.
With Carlos and Andrés leading the way, I drive out of town to the farmhouse where they plan to offer visitors a hands-on cheesemaking experience in a purpose-built ‘cheese workshop’.
Out in the countryside, the peaks of Grazalema National Park sparkle in the midday sun. Beside the house a herd of goats, the company’s own, is busily grazing a field of fresh grass. The payoya-montejaqueña breed once hovered on the verge of extinction, Carlos tells me, but has made a full recovery and is now highly sought-after. Protected by their thick coats against cold and heat, these goats are known for getting up on their hind legs to reach the tastiest leaves. As we talk one of them is to be seen doing just this, resting its front feet on a tree trunk as it stares mischievously in our direction.
Payoyo is proof that respect for tradition needn’t be incompatible with running an efficient and successful business. The factory has become the biggest employer in town with no less than nine ‘payoyo’ farmers depending on it for their livelihood. Meanwhile half-a-dozen new cheesemaking outfits have opened in Villaluenga del Rosario, and Andrés knows of several young people who have left the urban rat-race to become goat-herds in the area.
A modest tourist industry has even begun to develop, the annual highlight being the Feria del Queso Artesanal de Andalucía, a craft cheese fair held in April. But if gastro-tourists (and I’m one) are keener than ever to make the pilgrimage to this far-flung mountain village, it’s mainly thanks to Queso Payoyo.
‘Most of them are here to see us!’ laughs Carlos.
Try the delicious Payoyo Queso Goat's Cheese by ordering it from our website here.