Spanish cheeses first came to “international attention 2000 years ago, when the Greek geographer Strabo, in his notes mentioned that the super-sized cows grazing close to the port of Cadiz, Andalusia’s oldest town, produced rich milk. He also mentioned that locals were capable of skillfully converting the milk to fine cheese.
Today, Spain is a major cheese producer and exporter, but North America has been slow in importing these superbly crafted and flavorful cheeses.
From east to west, and from south to north, Spanish pastures range from sea-salty meadows, to threadbare vegetation, to highland meadows.
Sheep graze leisurely on highland meadows established centuries ago. Spain’s shepherds’ still use tranhumans between seasons to take advantage of cool highland weather. The daily milk s converted to cheese, and brought to the closest town monthly for sale.
In meadows, you can see sheep, goats, and cows contentedly graze.
In the Picos de Europa Mountains, blue cheese production enjoys an excellent reputation everywhere in Europe.
Northern wood-smoked cheeses like Basque Idiazabal, Austria Gamondei, Galician San Simon and Cantabrian Quesosuco de Leibana originate from caves where shepherds live during the summer months.
Similarly characteristic shapes of Spanish cheeses evolved from everyday utensils; ceramics, palm leaves, egg baskets, woven esparto grass for Manchego, wood and wicker.
All are relatively small in size for ease in transportation and handling.
Spanish regions and cheese makers are fiercely independent and highly imaginative, never afraid to explore new taste dimensions in their cheeses.
By 1996 the Ministry of Agriculture determined over 90 distinct cheese producing regions and catalogued them. Today, the number exceeds 110 and counting.
In La Mancha, grazing terrain, in summer, change seasonally as does the taste of the cheese.
In spring, sheep graze on fallow pasture, in summer on wheat stubble. In some areas the flocks graze on Mediterranean scrub, then in fall on barley stubble; in November on oak acorns.
Over centuries Spanish developed their own sheep breeds like Merino, for its wool and milk and Lataxa, just to name two.
Since 1980’s, young ambitious and highly entrepreneurial cheese makers also started producing organic cheese. The animals graze on organic pastures, and cheeses contain exclusively natural ingredients. Organic cheeses have been successful beyond the wildest imagination of producers.
In Europe, demand for organic food is much higher than in North America, and people are willing to pay more than for “industrial” food.
You can serve Spanish cheeses with lightly salted and toasted Spanish almonds, or mild black olives, or quince paste, or dried fig cake, or date cake, or sprinkle them with pimenton (Spanish paprika), coarse sea salt, or pepper.
You can also enjoy them as they do in Galicia with dark rye or corn bread with honey, paired with cider or moscatel wines. There is no end to your imagination. Selected Spanish cheeses are available in gourmet grocery stores in large urban centers like Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal in Canada, New York, Chicago, Miami, Los Angeles and Denver in the U S A.
Here is a short list of Spanish cheeses.
Beyos, Cabrales, Gamoneod, Garrotxa, Iberico, Ibores, Idiazabal, La Serena,
Majorero, Picon-Bejes, Quesuco de Leibana, Manchego, Murcia al Vino, Roncal, San Simon, Tetilla, Torta del Casar, Tronchon, Valdeon and Zamorano.
The above is a selection and all may not be available in North America due to import restrictions and/or health regulations.
Regardless, if you are visiting Spain, particularly Barcelona, Madrid, La Coruna, or San Sebastian, just ask the concierge to recommend a cheese store and you will be experiencing a cheese epiphany!
For more information log on www.quesos.com