In the last edition of Cheese, the Great Hall of Cheeses featured more than 200 types of cheese from Spain, representing the rich dairy biodiversity of the country. Again this year, Spain will be playing an active role at the Biodiversity House, at the taste workshop with the renowned chef Sergi de Méia, and with six stands at the international marketplace.
Spain also has a creamy new addition to Ark of Taste, the Manada cheese from La Palma, Canary Islands. We spoke with María Remedios Carrasco Sánchez and Antonio Javier González Díaz to get a general picture of Spain’s artisanal cheese situation. Though country has plenty of artisan cheeses and established PDOs, sanitary standards unsuited to small-scale cheesemakers still cause inconvenience to artisan cheesemakers.
Picture an industrial dairy factory that makes cheese with the milk of – who knows how many – different livestock animals, sometimes even from different countries, involving the handling of thousands of people. Certainly, a strict management of hygiene for this type of dairy factory is vital to ensure a safe product.
Now try to compare that with the production process of a cheese made on one farm, or in a few local farms where responsibility over the entire cycle depends only on few people and animals, with little or no transportation. Simply because of the way they work, having the same hygiene standards applied to this type of farm seems to only complicate the process for true artisans who are making a wholesome product with few potential hazards.
Although there are such marked differences in production between industrial and artisan dairy, European cheese factories are governed by the same hygiene regulations to protect consumer health. For artisan cheeses, European norms have actually provided exceptions and adaptations of production rules and requirements.
However, in some countries, small scale dairy producers still struggle to satisfy their national administrations despite the “flexibility provided for food produced in remote areas (high mountains, remote islands) and for traditional production methods.”
María Remedios Carrasco Sánchez, Slow Food member and coordinator of QueRed (Spanish Network of Farmhouse and Artisan Cheesemakers), works in Spain in line with the European network of artisan cheesemakers (FACE network). The network unites small-scale cheese producers and urges for legislative improvements to ease the legal barriers to artisan dairy products.
“Spanish authorities don’t want raw milk cheeses without aging,” says Remedios. “Even though producers do follow the European norms, the memories of the past century’s diseases are still there.” In practice there are many other obstacles that oppress the artisans. “But thanks to the union of producers, it is becoming possible to collaborate with the administrations so that the norms are adapted to the reality of the small productions and the achievements are being made for the conservation and development of our cheese heritage.”
Since QueRed network began working in 2010, they have been trying to demonstrate the legitimacy of food safety practices applied in farmhouse and artisan dairies. In December 2016, the guide they prepared was endorsed by the European Commission and the 28 Member States of the EU. It was published in January 2017 and is now an official reference document for farmhouse and artisan dairy producers in each Member State.
“The dairy heritage of Spain is one of the richest in Europe, thanks to its regional diversity and animal breeds. Spain has 80 native breeds, 59 of which are in danger of extinction.” Dairy traditions have been reviving in the past years, as people are returning to the countryside with a strong desire to rediscover the lost traditions.
You can find artisan cheeses all around the country: Galicia, Asturias and Cantabria are mostly known for their mountain pasture cow milk; the Basque Country and Navarra are sheep zones; while Catalonia, Aragona, Valencia and Extremadura mostly have sheep and goat cheeses. Andalusia, Murcia and the Canary Islands are the main goat breeding regions. In the Balearic Islands, cows are more common, while in Madrid you’ll find mainly goat milk cheeses.
Antonio Javier González Díaz nominated the latest cheese on Ark of Taste, Queso de Manada from La Palma island, where he was born and raised. Javier is the author of various anthropological books on the dairy culture of the Canary Islands.
“Spanish legislation previously banned the consumption of raw milk cheese aged less than two months. The Canary Islands have several cheeses with PDO status. There are three Protected Denominations of Origin and all of them are based on indigenous animal breeds:
- PDO Majorero from Fuerteventura island includes the cheeses from the island that are made from the Cabra Majorera or Cabra Canaria goat milk. It’s a very productive goat and is well-adapted to semi-arid zones.
- On the island of Gran Canaria there are the Queso de Flor de Guía, Queso de Media Flor de Guía and Queso de Guía, PDOs which are mainly made with Oveja Canaria sheep milk. The Flor de Guía cheese is curdled with vegetal rennet from thistle flower. The Media Flor cheese is flavored with both vegetal and animal rennet, while the Guía cheese is curdled with animal rennet. This PDO does not include the whole island but only three municipalities: Santa María de Guía, Gáldar and Moya.
- On La Palma, the Queso Palmero PDO is spread across the whole island. It is made with the milk of the Palmera goat (Cabra Palmera), a very rustic breed adapted to tough terrain. The Ark of Taste Queso de Manada is also included within the PDO, but is produced by very few farmers. Queso de Manada is a large cheese (8-15 kilos) made with the fresh raw milk of outdoor-grazing Palmera goats.”
“On the other hand, the Cañizo cheese, absurdly stayed outside the PDO,” says Javier. This is a small cheese (usually less than 1 kg), which is made in houses for home consumption, and is subjected to smoke. The temperatures it is subjected to during smoking helps the growth of propionic bacteria which produce wholes of considerable size.
“During the workshop at Cheese, we will taste cheeses produced under various conditions that would be in need of legislative ‘exceptions’ to fully respond to the criteria of the European norm,” says Javier. Indeed, the cheeses were granted the attention they needed from the authorities, and are no longer illegal although they might be aged less than two months. Some of the typical raw milk cheeses that will be tasted at the workshop are:
Queso de Guía Trashumante, made from raw milk of Canaria sheep breed (Oveja Canaria), aged in natural caves with vegetable or animal rennet. Presentation by Isidoro Jiménez, dairy technician in the islands who is often in contact with cheesemakers.
Queso Palmero from homemade goat rennet, made from the raw milk of grass-fed Palmera goat breed (Cabra Palmera). Presentation by Javier González.
Florida goat’s raw milk cheese, grazed with algae from the San Fernando Bay. Presentation by María Orzáez, from the artisan dairy Mare-Nostrum in Andalusia. It is acidified exclusively by the fermentation of the milk itself. María is a national reference figure for artisanal dairy production.
Raw milk Requeixo. Presentation by Ana Isabel Vence of the Cooperative Campo Capela in Galicia.
Raw cow’s milk cheese, matured in hay with a traditional maturing method that has nearly disappeared. Presentation by Germán García, producer of the artisan dairy Cortes de Muar in Galicia.
“The Cheese event is little known by the small producers of our islands. We try to inform and convey the importance of this event and that there are people who value them and are willing to help promote their cheeses,” says Javier.
What calls for special effort is raising public awareness of the cheeses these producers are keeping alive. The cheeses on the Ark of Taste are crucial for Spain because they represent a richness of biodiversity that is slowly reviving. Dairy world continues to grow in Spain, and thanks to the producers that spare time for the common good in associations like QueRed, artisan high quality cheeses that were once illegal will keep existing.
Spain has 11 dairy products and 31 animal breeds to protect under the Ark of Taste. Slow Food network in Spain is working on the nomination of about 20 new cheeses, 5 of which will be tasted in Cheese. Click here to see the full list of Ark of Taste products from Spain.