Flavors of the Camino de Santiago: On the Path from Tradition to Innovation

The cheesemaking tradition of the Iberian Peninsula is sometimes overlooked, as people tend to associate the greatest cheeses with countries like France, Italy, and Switzerland.

But this is a mistake: Cheesemaking evolved among pastoral communities, and Spain, one of the most mountainous countries in Europe (Madrid is the highest European capital), has an incredibly rich pastoral tradition and a variety of landscapes, ecosystems, and cultural traditions that have given rise to a great diversity of cheeses.

A wonderful taste workshop during the third day of Cheese 2019 gave participants an opportunity to taste several of these cheeses, all from producers who belong to the Alimentos del Camino de Santiago Food Community (Foods of the Saint James Way), one of the first Slow Food communities in Spain, and a great testament to the interconnected gastronomic traditions of the mountains and plateaus of Northern Spain.

One of the advantages of the new Slow Food community model is that it allows producers to collaborate over a wide geographical area; the Camino de Santiago community began at Cheese 2013 with a group of dairy producers from Asturias and the Basque Country, and has since come to include producers of other traditional foods from along the Camino, including cider and mountain honey. The workshop featured four cheeses, which were paired with ciders, wines, and other products from the region.


The tasting began in Galicia, at the western extreme of the Camino, with a cow’s milk cheese known as Tetilla, which is shaped like a breast (tetilla means “nipple”) to represent the power of mothers. The particular Tetilla presented at the workshop came from Campo Capela, the only producer of this cheese that uses raw milk.

Tetilla has a butter-yellow rind and luscious interior that is creamy but firm. It is made in the hills just 10 kilometers from the sea, and it has distinctive aromas and flavors of milk, butter, and nuts. The cheese was paired with a sparkling cider made in the champenoise method using five different apple varieties. The fine bubbles enhanced the flavor of the cheese, and the cider was round enough to hold up to Tetilla’s rich, creamy flavors, but acidic enough to leave the palate feeling clean.



Next up was Rey Silo, an Asturian cow’s milk cheese with a bloomy rind. The traditional name of this cheese is Afuega’l pitu, and it is one of the oldest cheeses in Spain, having been made at least since the 8th century, when the king of Asturias presented the cheese to Charlemagne. PDO regulations demand that Afuega’l pitu be made from pasteurized milk, but the producers of Rey Silo have returned to the original raw milk production.

This cheese’s complex herbal and honey aromas reflect the biodiversity and natural environment of the Asturian mountains. The producer does nothing more than “create an environment where cow’s milk and bacteria can enact their magic.” The Rey Silo was paired sensationally with a Cava that had been aged in the bottle for 42 months and exhibited fruity aromas without being too acidic. The workshop participants also got to taste the cheese in combination with an oil made from Picual olives: This variety must be picked before it ripens, in order to create a high-quality oil with grassy, faintly spicy flavors, rich in antioxidants and polyphenols.

One of the participants commented that he had never associated picual olives with high-quality oil, but that he would have to reconsider this assessment after tasting such a well-made picual oil. The final pairing with the Rey Silo was an apple preserve made with no added sugar. Asturias has been known for the quality of its apples since ancient times: Emperor Augustus conquered the region partly in order to supply his armies with apple-based foods and beverages.

Rey Silo Blanco. Photo: fotomarieta.es


The third cheese was a particularly well-made Idiazabal, the characteristic cheese of Navarra and the Basque Country. It is made with raw milk from local Latxa sheep, a rustic breed that produces small quantities of extremely high-quality milk and represents the pastoral history of Basque mountain communities. Today there are about 100 farmhouse producers of Idiazabal whose small herds graze on grasses, shrubs, and flowers.

Because of the small-scale production model, in which cheesemakers rely exclusively on their own sheep, the milk goes directly to the farmhouse dairy, without being transported or having its temperature altered. To complete the entirely self-contained production cycle, coagulation is driven by natural rennet that the shepherds obtain from their own herds.

The vegetation of the Basque Mountains and their proximity to the Cantabrian Sea confer particular flavors to the cheese, and the tradition of lightly smoking Idiazabal adds additional layers of flavor complexity; the Azkarra Idiazabal that was presented in the workshop is smoked with hawthorn wood. Pairings included a Cava partially aged in chestnut wood, and a heather honey from the high pastures.

Idiazabal. Photo: triptobasquecountry.com


In an important acknowledgement of the new wave of creative Spanish cheesemakers, the final cheese of the tasting was the Moncedillo blue, made in Segovia, in Castilla y León, with the raw milk of Churra sheep. This ancient breed is prized for both its milk and its meat. Moncedillo blue cheese was created in the last 10-15 years, but has already gained a positive reputation and enthusiastic following. This cheese is intense and delightfully creamy but very clean tasting, with a hint of mushroom.

In the most sumptuous pairing of the workshop, it was served with an Asturian ice cider aged for four months in new French oak in order to provide body and balance the fresh acidity. The participants also got to taste a brand new product, wafers made with local Asturian corn. Following the Spanish Civil War, corn saved the people of Asturias, so these wafers are an excellent expression of how a gastronomic innovation can reflect a community’s tradition.

The Camino de Santiago food community is an inspirational example for the rest of the Slow Food network, of how to revive interest in and passion for local food heritage by protecting traditional products and knowledge and, at the same time, providing a space for experimentation and the creation of new flavors.

by Charles Barstow



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