Nibbling Through Spain’s Cheese Country
We were in Asturias, a sliver of northern Spain that rests on the Bay of Biscay, and I had been drawn there by the region’s tagline: “The Land of Cheese.”
THE only words of caution were, “Just be careful you don’t wake up the bats.” I was in a pitch-black cave following a 44-year-old woman wearing tight jeans and a small light strapped to her forehead. While my eyes refused to adjust to the blackness, I could hear thousands — O.K., dozens — of little bat bodies shifting in slumber inches above my head. At last, we arrived.
“These are my babies,” said my guide, sweeping her arm toward a few hundred small wheels of hard, blue cheese resting on a stack of shelves. “You would like to try?”
Sure, great, now let’s get out of here.
We were in Asturias, a sliver of northern Spain that rests on the Bay of Biscay, and I had been drawn there by the region’s tagline: “The Land of Cheese.” I am, by any measure, a cheese person. While other people go to Tuscany for brunello or the Pacific Northwest for salmon, I follow cheese. Not just any fromage. I want the stuff I can’t get at home, the magic recipes that seduced the palates of the ancient Romans, the sharp ones, the stinky ones, the delicate artisanal ones that taste like little white flowers. When I found out there was a place in the world called the Land of Cheese, it was like the great cheese mothership calling me home.
My pilgrimage had led me to the bat cave last September where I was following Raquel Viejo, a local woman whose family has lived in Asturias for generations. The specialty of the region — and what was stored on those shelves — is Cabrales, a blue cow’s cheese named after the town in Asturias where it was first made. We were in the foothills of Picos de Europa, where everything is vertical: the sheer mountain faces, the steep pine trees, the skinny roads dotted with tiny cars nervously hugging the shoulders, flocks of sheep perched on the rocky lands, lone goats standing expertly on their hind legs munching from a thicket of low-hanging leaves, a cacophony of cowbells and beams of sunlight warming it all. Cheese country.
There are thousands of caves hidden in the hills here, and for centuries residents have been using them to age cheese. The specifics of each brand of cheese in various regions of Spain are regulated by a denomination of origin, or D.O., and Cabrales’s says it must be stored in cavelike conditions for at least two months so the good bacteria can kill off the bad. But recently, the craft of making Cabrales has suffered “because so many young people are leaving Asturias,” said Ms. Viejo.
A few years ago, the Spanish government created new regulations for the cheese makers in this area. Some of the old methods, like straining the milk with horsehair sieves, were done away with in favor of more modern technology, like metal strainers and mechanical devices. But the most important requirements — the dairy breed, the aging process, the lack of pasteurization — remain.
Back in her home, amid the intoxicating (some might say rancid) smell of sour milk, I tasted a slice of Ms. Viejo’s cheese, named José Antonio Bueno García after her husband. It was drier and saltier than the blues I was used to, but it didn’t taste overly blue, as some softer cheeses can. Delicious, but I couldn’t shake the image of the bats taking a few nibbles. (Do bats even eat cheese?) So my search continued.
Through another farmer in the area, I tracked down a cheesemaker a few villages over who was famous for resisting modernity. This sounded promising. Oliva Peláez Amieva, a squat woman with a wrinkled face, greeted me outside her small stone house in a purple muumuu and clogs.
“You can tell how long a family has lived here by how they make cheese,” said Ms. Amieva, who has been at it for 60 years. Her cheese isn’t Cabrales because she ignores the D.O. guidelines; in fact, it doesn’t have a name. She only makes about 200 wheels a year and most of it goes to friends and family members. For the moment, I was in the inner circle.
“The health department wants me to put in all sorts of regulations, but it wouldn’t be as good,” says Ms. Amieva, 70. “I used to sell it at the market, but I got in trouble with the police.”
Her cheese was a wonderfully sharp, dry, crumbly blend of goat and sheep milk that tasted slightly of salt and soil. And it’s labor intensive. Without modern equipment, all of Ms. Amieva’s animals are milked by hand. Once the cheese is poured into molds, she rubs each mound with salt and turns it over daily to ensure that it ages evenly; by the end, over 90 percent of the original milk volume is gone.
This isolated nook of the country has spawned hundreds, if not thousands, of artisanal cheese makers for generations. The cheese is cruder than French fromage and not as recognizable as Italian counterparts, but here, each wheel is as idiosyncratic as the person who makes it. The cheese of northern Spain is, like the land that produces it, rough, coarse and sharp, and there’s no way to taste it without traveling there.
I worked my way through a quarter of a wheel as we sat in Ms. Amieva’s modest living room, and realized, too late, that the cheese was so dry, my tongue was sticking to the roof of my mouth. Ms. Amieva offered me homemade cider, the gently effervescent, lightly alcoholic beverage that always accompanies a piece of cheese in this area. It was the perfectly sweet balance to her defiantly unnamed snack.
“The reason my cheese is so delicious,” said Ms. Amieva, without a trace of modesty, “is my hands.” She turned her meaty, callused palms over for inspection. “The natural bacteria in my skin makes the cheese more flavorful.”
To travel from village to village is to string together a perpetual cheese-and-cider festival, each farming community fiercely proud of its own, certain its concoctions are the best. Several people asked me if I thought Cabrales was superior to Basque cheese. The correct answer, of course, is “Of course.” But I had never tried Cabrales’s rival, and I was getting curious, so I steadily made my way west, until finally I crossed over into Basque country.
The first thing you notice about Basque country is that the cars all have the same bumper sticker: a cute, puffy sheep, who is the symbol of the region. Again, a very promising sign.
“You won’t find anyone here who likes Cabrales,” said Patxi Baskaran, a farmer who lives in the hills not far from Guernica (Gernika to Basques), the town bombed during the Spanish Civil War by the Condor Legion of the Luftwaffe. He was speaking with disdain about rival Asturias that I soon discovered was common among the Basques. Mr. Baskaran is a tall, lively man with a red face who has a way of yelling everything he says. His family has been making the same cheese for over a century on his farm. He learned the method from his father, but in order to stay competitive, Mr. Baskaran has had to teach himself how to work with modern equipment.
Mr. Baskaran makes Idiazábal, a hard sheep’s cheese with a strong, earthy flavor. Idiazábal is to Basque country what Cabrales is to Asturias — that is, there are thousands of small-scale farmers who think they make this delicious and individualistic cheese the best. And the only way to know for sure is to nibble your way through the wooded terrain of Basque country.
Mr. Baskaran was quick to tell me that he didn’t deserve credit, his sheep did. Soon it was time to meet the flock. He drove his Toyota 4runner up a deathly steep dirt road that led us above the clouds. Baht, the border collie, jumped out the window and rounded up the sheep for inspection, and hundreds of black faces paused momentarily before resuming their dinner of wild flowers. We stood on the summit of the mountain in the damp, white air, jagged cliffs looming like giant shark fins piercing the fog. “Big farms don’t make cheese like we do in Basque country because the sheep eat grains and they’re more stressed, so the milk is weak,” he said. “My sheep live peaceful lives.”
BEFORE I left Basque country, I met the least stressed sheep in all of Spain. Just west of San Sebastián, above the small town of Zumaia, there were hundreds of the puffy, four-legged cheese makers mowing a verdant field, mouthful by mouthful. They had trees for shade, a brook for water breaks, and 30 acres overlooking the dark, roiling Atlantic.
“My sheep live better than I do,” said the owner of Agerre Berri farm, José Manuel Etxberria, echoing a common sentiment in Basque country. Mr. Etxberria is 39 years old, with light eyes and skin browned from a lifetime outside. “They live very calm — they have a nice view of the ocean. In Basque, we say farmers love their sheep more than they love their women.”
And they make the cheese to prove it. Mr. Etxberria’s version, Itxas Egi, is a hard sheep’s variety with a sharp bite and the fragrant taste of clovers — strong, milky and grassy. This, he claims, is his secret ingredient: Keep the sheep happy eating nothing but sweet green grass and they will return the favor with delicious cheese “that goes perfectly with a glass of red wine and a beautiful girl.”
So did I ever find the world’s best cheese? Mr. Etxberria’s came awfully close, but I had to stop short of calling it perfect because of something he said.
“Cheese is like sheep; they all have a different personality,” said Mr. Etxberria, who has actually named most of his sheep. “And I could never choose my favorite sheep. They are all my favorites.”
The best way to get to cheese country from New York is to fly into San Sebastián. A recent online search found tickets around $500 on Continental and Iberian Airlines (both stop in Madrid). From San Sebastián, rent a car (www.avis.com; www.hertz.com) and drive west on the coast to any of the seaside towns in Asturias — Llanes, Ribadesella, Caravia or Lastres.
All have affordable hotels and great cheese shops. Try Hotel Sablon (34-985-401-987; www.hotelsablon.com) or El Habana (34-985-402-526; www.elhabana.net), two cozy inns just outside Llanes. Hotel Sablon closes Dec. 14 to Feb.2; El Habana is closed until March 14. Doubles start at 42 and 118 euros, respectively. Casa Gaspar (Calle de López Muñiz, 6; 34-985-860-676) is a good restaurant in Ribadesella. To buy cheese in Llanes, visit Casa Buj (Calle Mercaderes, 13; 34-985-401-072; www.casabuj.com).
In Basque country, the lovely Hotel Iturregi (34-943-89-61-34; www.hoteliturregi.com) is in Getaria. High-season doubles start at 230 euros. Aitor Lasa (Calle Aldamar, 12, San Sebastián; 34-943-430-354) is a good local cheese shop.