Quesería Cultivo: reviving the Spanish cheese scene

09 August 2021

Continuing our series on international affineurs at Cheese 2021, today we take you to Madrid, Spain, where Quesería Cultivo ages and sells Iberia’s finest dairy products.

It’s a relatively new business, having opened in 2014. We spoke to co-founder Rubén Valbuena about their history, their work and dreams for the future.

Slow Food: Where did it all begin for Quesería Cultivo ?

Rubén Valbuena: Quesería Cultivo opened its doors in September 2014, but to understand the origin of the project we must go back a few years to November 2011. That’s when I founded Granja Cantagrullas together with Asela Álvarez, a family-led artisanal cheesemaking operation in Europe’s largest and most depopulated rural region: Castille and León.

Cantagrullas processes sheep milk from the family sheep farm, which has a flock of 1200 Castilian breed sheep. The cheeses made here are unique adaptations of recipes we learned from French cheesemaking artisans.

“It was an innovative project that faced serious commercial problems at the beginning. That’s why we decided to establish our own sales point, a place promote these creations and teach our customers about cheese, and reorient their consumption.

The Quesería Cultivo shop in Calle Conde Duque 15. Photo: Quesería Cultivo

How many kinds of cheese do you stock nowadays, and how do you select them?

Quesería Cultivo has four shops now, all in Madrid. The offering is similar across these locations, as they all operate according to the same philosophy. In 2017 we embarked on a new adventure in affinage. After lots of training in France and our previous experience at Granja Cantagrullas we started an affinage program here, to offer an alternative vision of traditional Spanish cheeses. So we began to age cheeses from all across the country in our own caves.

There are several criteria that we use in the selection process: we want cheese made with raw milk, cheese from dairies that use the milk of their own cattle, cheese from native breeds, from extensive farming systems, natural rinds, cheeses aged in natural caves or underground, cheeses that are made out of respect for the environment and people. Not all of our cheeses comply with all of these points, but the intention is to go as far as possible in this direction, and we do what we can to help producers achieve this.

A Quesería Cultivo cheese platter. Photo: Quesería Cultivo

How has the Spanish cheese scene changed since you started Quesería Cultivo?

We’ve seen a lot of change in the last decade. The most important is the arrival of new players at the table: new cheesemakers have started working, people who offer a diverse and attractive selection of cheese made according to sustainable values.

This diversification has shaken up the market, which had been dormant. The opportunities for training to become a cheesemaker are expanding too, and new associations of producers are being founded which create new synergies. And of course, their work is being made available to the public through lots of new, specialized cheese shops across the country.

There are some topics that are acquiring a new prominence in the discourse around cheese: raw milk, cheeses made with the milk of native breeds, cheeses with natural rinds. The reality is that the cheese world had previously lost some of its value through simplification. Now, through the work of hundreds of people, we are changing all that. Artisanal cheese is in fashion once more in Spain.

Let’s talk about the cheeses you’ll present in our Taste Workshop. Where do they come from?

In our Taste Workshop at Cheese 2021 we’re going to present four cheeses that we’re really proud of. Thee of them are traditional creations, and one is a bit more innovative. They all have several things in common, aspects they share with all the cheeses in our catalog:

  • Isla Corazón. A traditional Canarian cheese which we age ourselves. With this cheese we bring together the hard work of a dozen or so small dairies that work on the islands of La Gomera and La Palma, though occasionally we also include cheese from Gran Canaria and/or Fuerteventura. They make cheese the old-fashioned way, with the milk of native breeds of goats and sheep. They’re sold after a very short aging period, usually between two and four weeks. At Quesería Cultivo we decided to buy part of their output and age it in our own caves to obtain something new, something unique.
  • Picón Bejes Tresviso DOP Javier Campo. This cheese comes from the very last dairy in the town of Tresviso, run by Javier Campo. We’re happy to report that Javier’s son César has joined the business, ensuring at least a medium-term future for this traditional cheese from the Cantabrian side of the Picos de Europa mountains. They have a herd of Jersey and Brown Alpine cows which graze extensively in mountain pastures from spring to autumn, adding great value to the blue cheeses made from their milk.
  • Mahón curado DOP Nicolás Cardona. This cheese represents the last remnant of ancestral cheesemaking tradition on the island of Menorca. El Mahón is a very special cheese, produced for as long as anyone can remember with the milk of the local farmers’ cows. The figure of the madurador or affineur is integral to this cheese tradition: the farmers take care of their animals, milk them and produce a raw milk cheese which is then sold after a few days to Nicolás Cardona, who has his cheese caves in the town of Alaior. Nicolás and his family maintain the old buildings with a north-south orientation that allows for good ventilation; the cheeses are aged here for several months on wooden boards, periodically rubbed with olive oil and paprika until they’re ready.
  • Jondal. José Luís Abellán is one of the new cheesemakers we talked about earlier. His desire to restore value to the milk of the Murciano-Granadina goats raised on his family’s farm by using it to make unique cheeses has earned him a place on the Spanish dairy vanguard. Together with José Luís at Quesería Cultivo we’ve designed this lactic-coagulation cheese made with raw goat milk and aged in a thin coat of smoked paprika, which gives it a spiced sensory profile.
Rubén Valbuena. Photo: Twitter account of Quesería Cultivo

And we’ll be pairing them with Vermouth, a drink that’s originally from Turin but which is probably more popular in Spain than in Italy nowadays…

Looking for new ways of enjoying artisanal cheese is an excellent strategy for promoting its consumption. We believe there are certain combinations that can help us discover the nuances of cheeses which we might not appreciate when tasting them alone. It’s something we’ve explored in the past in workshops dedicating to tasting cheese together with teas and infusions.

Vermouth is indeed a very fashionable drink in Spain. Its sweet and aromatic character should go well with certain cheeses: but we’ll have to wait and see and taste for ourselves!

Finally: what does it mean for you to come to Cheese?

Cheese is important because it gives us the chance to meet other cheesemakers from all over the world. It allows us to share our passion with others who share our admiration and respect for the world of dairy products. It’s way to make new contacts with potential partners and to expand and consolidate a great network of people united by a shared vision. We’ll see you there!

Come and meet the Quesería Cultivo team at the Taste Workshop dedicated to their cheeses in Pollenzo on September 20! You can also find their cheeses on sale at the Market throughout the days of the festival, from September 17 to 20.

by Jack Coulton, info.eventi@slowfood.it

Cover image: Quesería Cultivo