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2/03/2014

ON THE ARTISAN CHEESE & HAM TRAIL THROUGH WESTERN SPAIN



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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.

Driving southeast from Sevilla to Mazagón (Huelva), I arrived at the beautiful Parador de Turismo, which sits on a cliff above a long stretch of Atlantic beach. From Mazagón, I explored Palos de la Frontera, the village where Christopher Columbus recruited his crews and set sail on his first voyage, and the monastery of La Rábida, where Franciscan monks, Antonio de Marchena and Juan Pérez, had sheltered and encouraged Columbus, then helped him get his plan before Queen Isabela. Near Huelva, the provincial capital, a huge monument commemorating the discovery of the New World stands at the mouth of the rust red Río Tinto, from which Columbus sailed into the open sea on his way to immortalityTapas at Mazagón (Huelva)

 Monastery of Santa María de la Rábida where Columbus stayed, near Palos de la Frontera
Iglesia de San Jorge with its Moorish doorway, Palos (Huelva), where the edict was read to requisition the ships for Columbus's first voyage.

Near Huelva, the provincial capital, at the mouth of the rust red Río Tinto, from which Columbus sailed into the open sea on his way to immortality, stands a huge monument commemorating the discovery of the New World.


Replicas of Columbus's ships near Palos.

The next morning I drove north into Huelva’s Sierra de Aracena mountains to Jabugo, famous for its jamones Ibéricos de bellota made from Iberian pata negra (black foot) pigs, which roam free in the autumn months fattening up on acorns foraged beneath the cork oaks. I spent the morning visiting the Consorcio de Jabugo, a producer of the first-rate jamones. Julio Revilla, the firm’s President, showed me around his impressive production facility, where hundreds of the world’s best hams were aging under ideal conditions. Revilla explained that because of aging requirements (2½ years for hams), the jamones will not be available in the U.S. until 2008. In the plant’s dining room, Revilla invited me to lunch (salad, the Consorcio’s own Castilian cheese from Valladolid, plenty of their first-rate ham, chorizo and lomo (cured Ibérico loin), plus cuts of grilled, fresh Ibérico pork, for which a big demand is developing in Japan.

Julio Revilla, President of Consorcio de Jabugo, jamón Ibérico de bellota producers, at his stand at the Madrid Fusión gastronomic conference. ("Signature Jabugo hams. The Ibérico (pig), a singular breed. A place with a unique climate, Jabugo. And special treatment, the arte of Ibérico Ham Maestros.")  Photo: Gerry Dawes©2011 / gerrydawes@aol.com.

After a stop at Aracena to pick up a Monte Robledo torta de cabra, a rare local small goats' milk cheese (tortas are usually made with sheeps' milk), I explored several little-known hill villages before reaching the intriguing Extremaduran town of Jerez de los Caballeros (Badajoz), hometown to both Hernando de Soto, discoverer of the Mississippi River, and Vasco Nuñez de Balbao, the first Western explorer to report seeing the Pacific Ocean. That evening, arriving in the lovely small city of Zafra, I stayed in the 15th-century fortified Dukes of Feria palace, now the Parador de Turismo. At dinner, served in the soaring, two-story Renaissance patio, I sampled the assertive and delicious Aracena goat torta, an intriguing cheese with hints of mushroom or truffle flavors.



Quesailla Arochena Cuarada, Artisanal raw goats' milk 'torta' cheese from Aracena (Huelva), Andalucía. 
Photograph by Gerry Dawes©2009.

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.

Francisco Murillo, the D.O.P.’s technical director, took me to the Sánchez Ruíz (Toril del Cardo brand) cheese factory near the rocky, hillside town of Benquerencia. Murillo showed me a small artisan plant surrounded by well-trod grounds where scores of merino sheep, the approved breed, rested beneath the shade of oak trees. Murillo explained that D.O.P. Tortas de la Serena are made only with leche cruda de oveja, raw sheeps' milk, and he also pointed out the cardo silvestre (Cynara cardunculus; wild thistle flowers) that produce the vegetable rennet used to coagulate the milk. Cheeses made from this rennet ~ a practice rooted in ancient Moorish and Jewish dietary laws ~ often have a Vacherin Mont d’Or-like creaminess and a pleasant bitter almond finish. Murillo also gave me a tour of Lácteos de Castuera, a modern production plant that still requires careful daily hand-turning of the cheeses and cleaning the planks they rest on while aging. He gave me three tortas de la Serena, each with a lace band around its rind and packaged in a small brown cazuela, a reusable ceramic baking dish.

After stopping in Medellín, where an imposing statue of explorer Hernan Cortés stands in the town square, I drove to the great monumental Roman city of Mérida and checked into the Parador, this one ensconced in a renovated convent on a charming plaza. After touring Mérida’s splendid Roman theater and amphitheater, fine Roman Museum (designed by Rafael Moneo) and awesome Roman bridge over the Guadiana River, I dined at the Parador. The simpática server offered me jamón Ibérico from the D.O. Dehesa de Extremadura, followed by a local cheese selection that included a Manchego-type sheeps' cheese; a creamy, log-shaped Doña Inés goats' cheese; an exceptional Torta de Barros (from south of Mérida; winner of the 2003 Salón Internacional Club de Gourmets Torta cheese competition); and several goat cheeses from Berrocales Trujillanos, including an excellent Ibores from Trujillo.

The next day, my itinerary included the little-known hilltop town of Montánchez. Also famous for its hams, Montánchez soars above the Extremaduran plain and has superb views from the hermitage below the castle ruins that crown the hill. After enjoying a picnic lunch of some Ibérico ham and chorizo, local cured olives, wine and fresh figs, and a Serena Torta, I drove to Trujillo, one of Spain’s most striking and history-steeped towns.

Trujillo was the hometown of Francisco Pizarro, conqueror of Peru, and Francisco Orellana, a kinsman of Pizarro who discovered the Amazon River. The town is filled with photographic opportunities including Pizarro’s great equestrian statue, the towering San Martín church on the storybook town square, a number of palaces including Pizarro’s, a castle on the hill and many distinguished buildings along steep, winding streets that offer dramatic vistas.

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.


Torta del Casar ewe's milk cheese from Extremadura. Coagulated with vegetable rennet made from the milk thistle plant, in accordance with dietary laws that conform to both Jewish and Moorish tenets. 
Photo: Gerry Dawes©2011 / gerrydawes@aol.com.

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. 

Here the Alonso brothers, Tómas and Javier, make Queso de Valdeón, one of the great blue cheeses of Europe. Made principally with cows milk (sometimes laced with a bit of sheeps and/or goats milk), the cheeses are injected with pencillum mold, aged under humid conditions, then wrapped in sycamore leaves before being sold. Valdeón is a wonderfully smooth and creamy cheese with all the character of a classic blue cheese, without the more aggressive traits of other blue cheeses.  
 
 
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; gerrydawes@aol.com


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.

At Arenas de Cabrales, I visited Marino González’s own artisan cheese plant and the dark, humid caves on the hill where hundreds of Cabrales cheeses were maturing. I also tasted such cheeses as Afuega L’Pitu, Peñamellera and Ovín, but recounting my cheese adventures in this National Park of Cheeses is alone the subject for another article.

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)

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About Gerry Dawes
 

Writing, Photography, & Specialized Tours of Spain & Tour Advice

For custom-designed tours of Spain, organized and lead by Gerry Dawes, and custom-planned Spanish wine, food, cultural and photographic itineraries, send inquiries to gerrydawes@aol.com.  



I have planned and led tours for such culinary stars as Chefs Thomas Keller, Mark Miller, Mark Kiffin, Michael Lomonaco and Michael Chiarello and such personalities as baseball great Keith Hernandez and led on shorter excursions and have given detailed travel advice to many other well-known chefs and personalities such as Drew Nieporent, Norman Van Aken, Karen Page and Andrew Dornenberg, Christopher Gross, Rick Moonen, James Campbell Caruso and many others.


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“The American writer and town crier for all good Spanish things Gerry Dawes . . . the American connoisseur of all things Spanish . . .” Michael Paterniti, The Telling Room: A Tale of Love, Betrayal, Revenge and The World’s Greatest Piece of Cheese

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"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.


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"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
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Gerry Dawes was awarded Spain's prestigious Premio Nacional de Gastronomía (National Gastronomy Award) in 2003. He writes and speaks frequently on Spanish wine and gastronomy and leads gastronomy, wine and cultural tours to Spain. He was a finalist for the 2001 James Beard Foundation's Journalism Award for Best Magazine Writing on Wine, won The Cava Institute's First Prize for Journalism for his article on cava in 2004, was awarded the CineGourLand “Cinéfilos y Gourmets” (Cinephiles & Gourmets) prize in 2009 in Getxo (Vizcaya) and received the 2009 Association of Food Journalists Second Prize for Best Food Feature in a Magazine for his Food Arts article, a retrospective piece about Catalan star chef, Ferran Adrià.

In December, 2009, Dawes was awarded the Food Arts Silver Spoon Award in a profile written by José Andrés.

". . .That we were the first to introduce American readers to Ferran Adrià in 1997 and have ever since continued to bring you a blow-by-blow narrative of Spain's riveting ferment is chiefly due to our Spanish correspondent, Gerry "Mr. Spain" Dawes, the messianic wine and food journalist raised in Southern Illinois and possessor of a self-accumulated doctorate in the Spanish table. Gerry once again brings us up to the very minute. . ." - - Michael & Ariane Batterberry, Editor-in-Chief/Publisher and Founding Editor/Publisher, Food Arts, October 2009. 


Pilot for a reality television series with Gerry Dawes  
on wine, gastronomy, culture and travel in Spain.

Experience Spain With Gerry Dawes: Customized Culinary, Wine & Cultural Trips to Spain & Travel Consulting on Spain

Gerry Dawes can be reached at gerrydawes@aol.com


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