The north of Spain is a vast extension of mountain land, of over 100Km (621 Miles), from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean, spreading out to a total area of 125,000 km2 or (48,000 square miles). The western half is dominated by the Cantabric Mountains, from Galicia to the Basque Country, and the eastern half by the Pyrenees, in Navarra, Aragon and Catalonia, creating the natural border with France.
The climate is Atlantic and continental with alpine conditions at the highest points, abundant rainfall and cool to extreme temperatures. This part of country is green all year round, its rich pastures provides a source of food for the herds of cows and flocks of sheep kept here.
These geographical and climatic conditions describe this environment as a “highland” or “pastoral culture”. Spain as a whole produces a hundred or more different cheeses; more than half come from the northwest of Spain.
This gentle mountain landscape and tranquil valleys produce 4 types of cow’s milk cheese. Central Galicia is known for its Tetilla Gallega, (named for its flattened breast- like shape), and for Ulloa and Arzúa. Both are soft, short matured cheeses, smooth and soft inside and ranging from elastic to sticky in texture. They are light in flavor and very slightly salted. Their reputation has spread and they are now in demand all over Spain. They owe all this to the sweetish dense, fatty milk yielded by the native breed of dairy cow named the “Rubia Gallega” ( Galician Blonde)
The western foothills of the Cordillera Cantábrica, produce two other cows’ milk cheeses, San Simón, made around Villalba and Cebreiro, made near the high mountain passes of Piedrafita and Becerréa, both in the province of Lugo. San Simón is a soft to semi-hard cheese with an intense flavor. It is recognizable by its cannon ball shaped topped with a nipple, by its gently birch-wood smoked brownish exterior, waxy rind and unmistakable smell.
Cebreiro is an unusual rural farmhouse cheese, in very small quantities. Shaped like a chef’s hat, it is drier in texture, compact and granular though it can sometimes be spreadable.
Asturias. Time -honored cheeses.
Beyond the northern slopes of the Cantábrica range, lies the Principality of Asturias. It is regarded as an enduring bastion of basic values & traditions of Spain. The inaccessibility of this mountainous territory, wedged as it is between the ocean and the high mountains which separate it from the central meseta, has kept it unspoiled and with its traditions intact. This is also why it is Spain’s richest cheese producing area today.
An area of 10,000 km2 or (3,861 square miles) boasts almost 30 varieties of cheeses. They include pressed, semi-cooked and medium to long matured ones such as Taramundi; fresh, lactic, buttery cheeses such as Porrúa and Vidiago; soft , washed-rind ones such as Peñamellera; several blue cheeses such as La Peral, Gamonedo and the well known Cabrales.
There are two very ancient cheeses in the region. One is Afuega’l pitu, a fresh soft cheese made by lactic coagulation and molded or pressed by hand. The other is the Casin , a farm house cheese made in the Campo de Caso area with a very fatty dense milk. It is pressed several times with a special roller, ending up as a fine-grained sandy textured cheese, piquant in flavor and cylindrical in shape.
Picos de Europa: A natural national park of cheeses.
On the eastern edge of Asturias, straddling the provinces of Cantabria and Leon, the Cantábrica range develops into the huge limestone mass known as Picos de Europa. Over 100 Km or (62 miles), the channel of the River Cares traverses them. The Picos de Europa are the foothills to the highest pastureland, for over twenty varieties of cheeses.
Beginning with the most important blues: Cabrales made of raw milk of a blend of cow’s, goat’s and sheep’s milks.
Picón, a close relative of Cabrales is made in the Cantabrian villages of Bejes and Tresviso. Gamonedo, another farm house cheese is of a big format (each weighs over 8 lbs), gently smoked for a month and then matured in natural caves, until interior mold develops. The last one of this group is Picón de Valdeón, made in the Posada de Valdeón area, on the southern slopes of the Picos.
The cheeses are soft inside, some spreadably and others crumbly, and when cut reveal little galleries and caverns inhabited by the greenish-blue mold which gives them their characteristic strong big complex flavor.
In the Liébana area we find the Quesucos, in fresh form from Pido and smoked from Aliva.(two villages at the source of the River Deva). The fresh Pido cheese is soft and spreadable, much like a petit-suisse.
The smoked Aliva made originally from goat’s milk, is now made with predominantly cows’ milk. It’s soft though dense, close textured cheese with an acidic, buttery flavor and a delicate aftertaste left by juniper smoke. Quesucos are made in Liébana and throughout Cantabria, part of Asturias and in Las Encartaciones (Basque Country). They are simple little soft cheeses with an honest flavor of cow’s or blended milks produced by fresh pasture grazing.
Soft creamy Cheeses
Cantabria produces another cow’s milk cheese named Queso de nata (cream cheese), it is smooth and soft, melts on the palate and tastes strongly of fermented cream.
There is also a unique cheese known as Garmillas, formerly called unpressed Pasiego. It used to be made in the Pas valley in the central eastern area of Santander, made only for the local market, its delicacy and short keeping capacity have caused it now to wane in popularity almost to the point of extinction. Nevertheless, anyone who can get to the area should be sure to try this flat, irregularly shaped disc, with its fine rind patterned with the imprint of the “cerbellanes” or twigs.
The flavor is sweetish and complex, light but intense, and aromatic.
The cheeses produced in the Basque Country and Navarre are predominantly matured sheep’s milk cheeses, sometimes smoked. Even though in the areas around centers of population, one can still get fresh cows’ milk cheeses, gelatinous in appearance, vividly white and smooth and buttery in the mouth.
The Pyrenees: changing times.
Throughout the central and eastern Pyrenees, both cows and sheep are kept as livestock. One century ago, sheep were the majority. While cows were more multi-purpose beasts, kept for meat, milk and work. Eating habits of the area changed as urban growth increased the demand for dairy products. Nowadays, the area is a source of a huge variety of cow’s milk cheeses, from fresh to cured catering broadly for palate and price. Among them, cheeses from Benasque, the Valle de Aran, l’Alt Urgell- Cerdanya and Llivia and Selva. There are also new variants like Mató and Recuit (traditionally catalan cheeses) made mainly with cow’s milk.
Off the Mediterranean coast of mainland Spain lie the Balearic Islands. Menorca, the northernmost and easternmost island of the whole archipelago, is the home of another favorite cheese : the Mahón. Menorca’s climatic conditions transform this tiny island, into a huge verdant meadow of pasture and potential fodder. Dairy farming is one of the main occupations of the island.
Mahón cheese is made all over the island. Its characteristic shape- a sort of rounded parallel-piped- derives from the knotted cotton cloth (fogasser) in which curds are molded and pressed. It is eaten both fresh and aged with the rind either left natural or oiled with paprika.
The island of Mallorca produces its own cheese, similar to Mahón, known as Malorquín, which was originally a pure Sheeps’ milk cheese, also molded in a fogasser.
Queso de Guía: the exception to the rule
Another singular cheese, comes from Guía in the northeast of Gran Canaria (Canary Islands). The whole archipelago is a big cheese producer and consumer of goat’s milk. In the case of the Guía, they use cow’s milk mixed with sheep’s milk. Guía cheese is popular among the islanders for its fresh buttery flavor and acidic buttery aroma.