Spain’s blue cheeses are distinctive, with a character all of their own. These are cheeses that make their presence felt. Nature intervenes while they mature, contributing special microorganisms that inhabit caves in the highest of the Picos de Europa mountains in northern Spain. These molds belong to the same family as those that produce penicillin and those involved in curing acorn-fed Ibérico ham. The cheeses combine pronounced flavor with smooth texture, and their overall appeal to the senses earns them the position of honor on a well-selected cheeseboard: they are left for last, knowing that their aftertaste will linger on in the nicest possible way.
Legend tells of a shepherd who, about to tuck into the meal of curds that he had just prepared, looked up to see a beautiful girl moving among the trees in the distant woods. Abandoning his meal and his sheep, he set off in pursuit, walking many miles without success. Returning in disappointment to retrieve his flock, he found his dish of curds where he had left it, now covered in mold. He was so hungry that he ate some anyway, and found that it tasted rather good.
And it largely to the effect of a mold, Penicillium, that the distinctive characteristics of this type of cheese can be attributed to. Penicillium can be grown by adding a culture to curds so that it can develop during maturation. It can also be rubbed into cheeses so that it makes its way into them slowly, or it can be added by injecting the cheese with impregnated needles. In some cases, there is no need for Penicillium to be grown artificially because the molds are present in the environment: this is particularly true of specific natural caves where cheeses are matured, and in which they will gradually work their way into the cheese from the outside. For this reason the color is more intense in the part of the cheese nearer the surface and less so in the center. Most Spanish blue cheeses go through this process which provides them with a unique authenticity and added value.
Spain’s Blue Cheeses
Geographical location has exerted a profound influence over how the traditional cheeses of the various producing areas are made and preserved. Specific methods have survived in the most isolated parts of the country where contact with population centers has been historically tenuous. This describes the situation in the Picos de Europa mountains perfectly, and explains why the cheeses still made in the area occupied by Asturias, Cantabria and León (Castile-León) share similar characteristics yet also possess qualities that distinguish them from each other. This is reflected in the existence of two PDOs (Protected Designations of Origin): Cabrales and Picón-Bejes-Tresviso, and one PGI (Protected Geographic Indication): Valdeón.
Nearby, on the northern slopes of this mountainous area, another distinct blue cheese is made whose characteristics are different: Gamoneu or Gamonedo which also enjoys PDO status.
Possibly the easiest way to understand what Cabrales is, short of actually trying it, is by comparison to Roquefort. To begin with, the histories of these two cheeses share many coincidences and commonalities. Indeed, it appears that both Cabrales and Roquefort were developed at around the same period, since the first references to them in written texts, for instance, have similar dates. Furthermore, both areas have caves within which environmental conditions are similar and equally propitious to fostering the fungal flora needed for maturing this type of cheese.
This said, Cabrales is a distinct and unique mountain cheese produced in Asturias. Though now production is no longer subject to the seasons, it was originally made in spring and summer exclusively from the milk made available by the birth of young animals at that time of year. Nowadays, most Cabrales is made with cow’s milk, but incorporating milk from other species (sheep or goat) unquestionably contributes other characteristics and can produce superior quality cheeses. In fact, Cabrales cheeses made with mixed milks are the ones most sought after by connoisseurs and traditionally take the top prizes in competitions
The production method of this cheese from Cantabria is not very different from others in the Picos de Europa. Just like Cabrales, when making Picón cheese the curds have to form slowly and at low temperatures so that they are acidic enough for satisfactory microbial activity to take place. The granular curds must be packed loosely in the casts and not over-compressed, ensuring that the mass is porous enough to allow the molds to develop.
The cheeses are aged in chalk-walled caves with stable temperatures and high humidity levels where drafts of air are provided by ventilation shafts, natural or artificial. It is curious, then, that despite such similar production methods, Picón-Bejes-Treviso cheese should be so radically different. Part of the reason lies in the fact that producers only use milk obtained from specific, locally adapted breeds: Tudanca, Alpine Brown and Friesian cows; Pyrenean goats (whose milk contributes an acidic zing); and Latxa sheep (whose milk makes the cheese more buttery and smooth). Another factor that has a differentiating effect is that the pastures on which the animals graze are situated in eastern Cantabria, on chalky soils and frequently at great heights above sea level.
This cheese is produced exclusively in the municipality of Posada de Valdeón in the north of the León province (Castile-León, northwest Spain). Situated very high above sea level, this area had a long history of isolation. Frosts, which occur over 100 days a year here, and the winter snows last for several months, combined with the mountainous terrain mean that the area was very much “off the map” until the fairly recent building of decent road networks.
Although rainfall is high, providing good grazing grounds, the atmosphere is less moist here than in the Cabrales and Picón producing areas, which explains why the molds in a Valdeón cheese and its rough, irregular rind develop with less intensity. It is made with cow’s milk, with a lesser proportion of goat’s milk and occasionally sheep’s milk. The best examples are obtained when the three different milks are used capitalizing on their availability when the animals have just given birth. The result is an intensely flavored and slightly piquant cheese, with a rich aroma and buttery texture, which melts readily in the mouth and leaves a long aftertaste.
Gamonéu / Gamonedo
This is also a blue cheese, though Penicillium plays a lesser role in it than in the cheeses considered thus far. Combined with the fact that it is also lightly smoked, the sensory characteristics of the end product are significantly different. Like the other cheeses, this is also made with cow’s milk, though the addition of sheep’s and goat’s milk gives rise to a cheese that acquires superior quality during the maturation process. Many experts consider this the smoothest, most elegant and unique of all of Spain’s blue cheeses.
Traditionally, cheesemaking would have been more intensive in spring and summer to capitalize on the higher milk yields generated by the nourishing highland pastures of the Puertos (Cangas de Onís and Onís mountain passes, in Asturias) to which their herds were transferred at that time of year. Lower down in El Valle, the livestock grazes on gently sloping meadows which, at their most productive, can be mown to provide hay for the winter months. The gamones (asphodels) that give their name to the district and its cheese are a common feature of the area’s pastureland.
Though things have changed since the old days, the custom still survives of suffixing an indication of provenance to a Gamoneu / Gamonedo cheese. This explains the existence of cheeses labeled Gamone u/ Gamonedo del Puerto or Gamoneu / Gamonedo del Valle, whose slightly different characteristics can trigger long debates among local sybarites.
Blue Cheeses in Gastronomy
Any cheeseboard worthy of the title will include blue cheeses, whether Spanish varieties or an international selection. They should be placed last in order of consumption because of their intense flavor, but there are other options too. A board composed of only blue cheeses, for example, provides an opportunity to appreciate the nuanced diversity of their ever-intense aromas, the complexity of their flavors, their color differences, and their varying textures (all of which share the characteristic of melting readily and creamily in the mouth). A good way to eat them is to spread them on slices of whole-wheat bread, or better yet spelt, so that their aroma and flavor are revealed to best effect.
What to Drink with Blue Cheeses
Cider and blue cheese are a traditional match that seems just right in the informal setting of a chigre (Asturian cider bar) yet, considered objectively, the flavor of the cheese almost overwhelms the taste of the cider. The same thing happens with beer, which becomes just another liquid that helps the cheese on its way without much flavor of its own. Experience has shown that blue cheeses demand full-bodied crianza wines from the likes of Rioja, Ribera del Duero, Bierzo and Toro, but they actually harmonize better with other, smoother, more delicate wines with a hint of sweetness such as port, oloroso and amontillado sherries, and even some young whites such as Gewürztraminer varietals. Eaten at the end of a meal, they are beautifully complemented by an orujo (eau-de-vie) from Potes (Cantabria) or an apple pomace, sturdy enough themselves to hold their own in the flavor stakes.
Article: Ismael Díaz Yubero/©ICEX
Picture: Luís Carré / ICEX (Pix of Spain)