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A Journey through Andalucía, Extremadura, Castilla y León and Asturias in Search of Iberian Ham, Wonderful Cheeses and More
Text & photographs copyright 2014 by Gerry Dawes
A few years ago, I embarked on an ambitious trip to Spain designed to accomplish several missions: My journey would begin in warm, southern Andalucía on the Atlantic Ocean and end in the cool northern coastal regions of the Cantabrian Sea and along the way I would visit some of Spain’s best cheese-producing regions in Extremadura and Castilla y León and end the trip in the so-called Parque Nacional de Quesos (National Park of Cheeses) in the northern provinces of Asturias and Cantabria. Along the way, I planned to sample Ibérico hams and embutidos (cured meats), which had just been approved for importation into the United States.
Monastery of Santa María de la Rábida where Columbus stayed, near Palos de la Frontera
The following day I drove through stark, hilly terrain to the remote de la Serena region (Badajoz) to seek out the legendary Torta de la Serena. With much the same characteristics as Torta del Casar, this exceptional, expensive cheese is ~ in springtime and early summer versions ~ creamy, buttery, and spreadable like Brie, but with more intriguing, rustic flavors. I visited two excellent producers making cheeses from the de la Serena Denominación de Origen Protegida (D.O.P.) A D.O.P. operates under rules similar to those governing wine regions and guarantees the origins and production methods of a cheese.
Previous paradores were good places to sample local cheeses. Trujillo was no exception, with good reason: The D.O.P. Ibores offices are located here and Trujillo is host to the most highly esteemed cheese competition in Spain, the annual Feria del Queso, where, in the Plaza Mayor on the first weekend in May, some 350 cheeses are available for judging, sampling and sale. At the parador, I was served a smooth, delicious Ibores goat cheese and a soft, rich tortita de Barros – cut in half and surrounded by toast rounds.
After a restful night, I set out for Cáceres to visit a Torta del Casar producer who came highly recommended by Toño Pérez, chef-owner of Átrio, a Michelin one-star restaurant that serves the best modern cuisine in Extremadura. Just southeast of Cáceres is EXLAJA, a modest, artisan quesería that produces a first-rate Torta del Casar ("Tiana"), a famous non-D.O.P. torta (El Castúo), a flavorful semi-curado and a characterful curado (aged one year).
Now a D.O.P. recognized by the EU, Torta del Casar is a raw milk Merino sheep cheese that is also coagulated with wild thistle rennet. Similar in style to the French Vacherin Mont d’Or o Epoisses(both cows' milk cheeses), Torta del Casar can be semi-soft or ripened to the point that it becomes molten and can be scooped out with a piece of crusty country bread. Torta del Casar, which gets its name from its torta-shape (like a Spanish potato omelette, or tortilla), is quite expensive since it takes several sheep (two milkings a day) to get the gallon of milk required just to make a two-pound cheese.
I tasted several cheeses at EXLAJA, photographed some charmingly picturesque young lambs and the purple cardo silvestre flowers growing on the property, then drove into Cáceres, enjoying a superb lunch at Átrio – with Torta del Casar ice cream with membrillo strips and vanilla oil for dessert! After lunch I explored the historic old quarter of Cáceres, then drove north, stopping briefly in the town of Casar, from whence the cheese gets its name, to photograph a wonderful scene – the bell tower of the town church crowned with storks in their nests with a herd of sheep in the foreground. Further north, I stopped briefly in late evening at Guijuelo, a town south of Salamanca filled with Ibérico jamon and embutido processing plants, including those of Joselito, the most sought-after in Spain. I spent the night in Salamanca, a city famous for its historic university, its plateresque architecture and the most beautiful Plaza Mayor in Spain. Taking a temporary respite from cheese and ham sampling, I dined that evening on grilled shrimp and the region’s famous tostón, roast suckling pig.
The next day I drove to León, the last stop before continuing into the majestic, but challenging high mountains of the Picos de Europa and the National Park of Cheeses. On the way, I passed through Zamora, where the excellent D.O.P. Zamorano cheese is made from pasteurized milk from churra and castellano sheep. North of Zamora I stopped to visit the ruins of the once magnificent 12th-century Romanesque Cistercian monastery at Granja de Moreruela. Flanking the ruins, standing like soldiers at attention, were thousands of wild thistles, now dried and glowing golden in the rays of the evening sun.
Upon reaching León, I found it in the midst of fiesta, and its restaurants and bars packed. Volunteers worked steadily to create a huge carpet of flowers in front of León’s magnificent Gothic cathedral, but even the flower carpet was upstaged by the sight of the church’s superb stained glass windows lit from inside and glowing like iridescent jewels against the night sky.
The following morning, I headed north to another majestic cathedral, this time a natural one, the mighty Picos de Europa mountains. I had an appointment with Marino González, President of COASA ~ a group of some 40 artisan producers, including González, who is the prime mover behind promoting artisanal food products from the bounteous Asturian cornucopia. Marino led me to Posado de León, a small village in northeastern León province nestled in a valley beneath awesome mountains, which still had pockets of snow in early July.
Tomás Alonso, one of the brothers who produce Valdeón, at their Quesos de Valdeón plant in
Posadas de Valdeón, León province, Castilla y León. Photos by Gerry Dawes©2012; firstname.lastname@example.org
After visiting Valdeón, I followed Marino González through the dramatic 14-kilometer canyon, the Desfiladero de Los Beyos, and up into the hills to visit his family home, where his sister produces the highly regarded artisan cheese, Beyos. A historic cheese that was nearly extinct, this dense, compact, "peasant"-style, cows milk queso has a unique flinty texture and flavor. The firmness at first bite melts into a buttery, creamy, chalky paste, which makes it a cheese par excellence with cider or wine. I sampled the Beyos with Asturian cider that Marino poured from a height into wide-mouthed glasses. Versions of Beyos are also made with goats milk and mixed cow and goats milk.
For two days I stayed in the Cangas de Onís, an important Asturian tourist and market town in the foothills, visiting a number of cheese producers who work with Marino González, sampling Cabrales, Spain’s most famous D. O. P. blue cheese, a semi-soft blue (made mostly from raw cows milk) with a strong, spicy flavor, and Gamoneu, one of the few remaining naturally bluing blue cheeses. This is made from raw cows' milk (with some goats or sheeps milk mixed in) and has a creamy, pungent flavor. I watched a Gamoneu producer’s wife work the coagulating curds and whey up to her elbows, after which she stoked the apple wood fire that provides the smoky flavor to rows of aging cheese wheels.
As I was driving towards Cantabria, the thought occurred to me to attempt to reach Tresviso, a town hidden at the end of a corkscrew road up in the highest peaks of these mountains, where a powerful D.O.P. blue cheese, Picón Bejes-Tresviso, is made. But the road was too difficult in my rental car, and I soon retraced my route and headed for the Parador de Turismo Gil Blas at Santillana del Mar, a Medieval village near the sea, southwest of Santander. As luck would have it, the selection of cheeses that final night at the parador included several Cantabrian cheeses including a pungent, grey-blue cheese from Tresviso. It reminded me that on my next trip to Spain’s National Park of Cheeses, Tresviso will be high on my list of places to visit.
(Original version published in Foods From Spain News)
About Gerry Dawes
"Gerry Dawes, I can't thank you enough for opening up Spain to me." -- Michael Chiarello on Twitter.
"Chiarello embarked on a crash course by traveling to Spain for 10 days in 2011 with Food Arts contributing authority Gerry Dawes, a noted expert on Spanish food and wine. Coqueta's (Chiarello's new restaurant at Pier Five, San Francisco) chef de cuisine, Ryan McIlwraith, later joined Dawes for his own two week excursion, as well. Sampling both old and new, they visited wineries and marketplaces, as well as some of Spain's most revered dining establishments, including the Michelin three-star Arzak, Etxebarri, the temple to live fire-grilling; Tickets, the playful Barcelona tapas bar run by Ferran Adrià and his brother, Albert; and ABaC, where Catalan cooking goes avant-garde." - - Carolyn Jung, Food Arts, May 2013.
"In his nearly thirty years of wandering the back roads of Spain," Gerry Dawes has built up a much stronger bank of experiences than I had to rely on when I started writing Iberia...His adventures far exceeded mine in both width and depth..." -- James A. Michener, author of Iberia: Spanish Travels and Reflections
In December, 2009, Dawes was awarded the Food Arts Silver Spoon Award in a profile written by José Andrés.
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