Words from our man on the ground in Spain, Paul Richardson
One spring day in 1988 a letter fell through my front door. It was an invitation to a tasting of cheeses organised by a fledgling Spanish food import company.
Spanish cheeses! It sounded to my ears like a contradiction in terms, for in that far-off time, unlikely as it sounds, Spain had yet to be recognised abroad as a cheese-making powerhouse. But my curiosity was piqued. And what I discovered at that tasting came as a revelation. I had an idea about manchego, but there were cheeses here from Asturias, Andalucía, Murcia, even from Menorca – each with its own vibrant personality, and all of them unknown to me. Clearly Spain had a far richer and more evolved cheese culture than I could ever have imagined.
How could I have been so ignorant? It turns out I had a good excuse. In those days Spanish cheeses, like Spanish hams, were still eclipsed by the products of other countries (hello France and Italy) who had been busily plying the UK market for years. Pecorino and Gorgonzola may have been household names, but Payoyo and Garrotxa were decidedly not.
What we’ve learned since then is that Spain’s huge variety of landscapes and ecosystems also harbours a huge variety of queso. Among European countries Spain has the third largest tally of individual cheese types - after France and Italy but well ahead of Greece, Portugal and the UK. A total of 30 Spanish cheeses enjoy protected status either as Denominación de Origen (DO) or Indicación Geográfica Protegida (IGP).
And the diversity is astounding. There are cheeses made from the milk of goats, sheep, cows and buffalo, and a plethora of shapes and sizes from the conical teat of a cow’s-milk Tetilla to the fat rectangular ‘log’ of a Monte Enebro goat’s cheese. According to tradition and the lie of the land, rinds might be washed with wine or rubbed with pimentón, with ibérico pork fat, ash, or mountain herbs. You’ll find blue cheeses like Valdeón and the famous Cabrales - a worthy rival for Roquefort and Stilton - and nuttily delicious manchegos like ‘1605’, made at the Sierra La Solana estate near Ciudad Real, which is aged for 11 months and begs to be served with a good membrillo (quince paste).
Historically cheese in Spain tended to be made by peasant farmers or semi-itinerant shepherds in the kitchens of their village houses or in mountain huts during the summer months. The 19th-century writer Jovellanos suggested home-made cheese was the only viable use for a milk surplus in the primitive rural economy of a region like Asturias. Cheeses were often given in lieu of rent to the landowner, or simply passed from hand to hand among neighbours and family members.
Delicate and perishable products, they travelled badly over the vast distances and poor communications of pre-modern Spain. Only fully-cured cheeses had much of a presence beyond their place of origin. Even with the arrival of refrigeration and fast transport, Spanish cheesemakers still relied on local markets and weren’t geared up for export.
But there was a further problem. For forty years the Franco régime, more interested in quantity than quality in food, did nothing for artisan cheeses, indeed did everything it could to suppress them. Prevented from selling in fairs and mercadillos, small-scale cheesemaking effectively went underground. Many Spanish cheese types became extinct (as many as 80 according to some estimates) or clung on in remote corners of the country. Torta del Casar, the raw-milk sheep’s cheese from Extremadura whose fame has since spread (like its gloriously rich and gooey interior) across the globe, was still a ‘freak’ cheese which only occurred by chance and couldn’t be reproduced on a commercial scale.
Only after the death of Franco and the return of democracy to Spain did the situation begin to improve. A key date was 1985, when agricultural regulation was devolved from central government to the recently created Autonomous Communities, forcing a new awareness of the country’s fine regional foods. When Spain joined the EU the following year, harmonised Europe-wide rules made it feasible for small producers to sell their wares for the first time in foreign markets.
The story wouldn’t be complete without mentioning Enric Canut and Mariano Sanz, whose energy and vision gave the the world of Spanish cheese a shot in the arm just when it needed it most. During the mid-1980s Sanz and Canut set up an Association in defence of artisan cheese, and travelled the length and breadth of Spain in search of undiscovered jewels. The report these ‘cheese detectives’ submitted to the Ministry of Agriculture cited no less than 89 products, of which the authorities were aware of only 32.
True food heroes, Sanz and Canut are credited with rescuing many Spanish cheeses from almost certain extinction. It was they who brought the Torta del Casar out of obscurity, perfecting a recipe that would make it go gooey every time – and paving the way for a Denominación de Origen for the cheese in 1989 - and inspiring other great tortas La Retorta and Canarejal which similarly feature thistle rennet in the recipe. The annual Feria del Queso they founded in Trujillo, Extremadura, is now among the pre-eminent cheese-fests on the international foodie calendar (usually in May).
Another of their success-stories was the rebirth of Garrotxa. This was a matured goat’s cheese that had once been made around Sant Miquel de Campmajor in the Catalan Pyrenees, but had been forgotten until two young livestock farmers took up the tradition again - with the help of Sanz and Canut. The resulting cheese, slightly piquant but silky on the palate and covered with a soft grey mould, was an instant classic and is now made by more than 20 other dairies in the region.
‘Cada queso es un pueblo’ (every cheese is a people), says Sanz - meaning that cheese is a perfect expression of Spain’s cultural, climatic and geographical diversity.
When the invitation to that tasting landed on my doormat all those years ago I was struck by the unusual name on the RSVP. It was an easy one to remember, though at the time I didn’t know it derived from the Spanish word for a ‘toast’. In the intervening years Brindisa has been both a pioneer and a passionate supporter of the Spanish cheese revolution. Its range of quesos artesanos has grown year on year, now showcasing new craft discoveries from dynamic young cheesemakers alongside the big names. And more than thirty years after Brindisa first taught me there was life beyond manchego, the company is still doing its work of education, bringing the finest Spanish cheese to the attention of food-lovers throughout the United Kingdom.