Made in Extramadura in western Spain, Torta Finca Pascualete is produced by the Figueroa family at their eponymous farm (or “finca”) or the same name.
Cheeses have been made in the region for many centuries. Although Extramadura is known as one of the most rugged and poorest regions of Spain, it is also home to some of its most renowned foods, including traditional production of Torta style cheeses made from raw sheep’s milk and coagulated with rennet made from the stamens of the cardoon thistle.
However, the history of cheesemaking at this particular farm has a more recent and very remarkable story.
During World War II, Aline Griffith, a young woman from New York was sent on a mission to Madrid to infiltrate the aristocracy and gather intelligence for the CIA, which she successfully conducted for several years.
After the end of the war, she stayed, marrying Luis de Figueroa, the Count of Romanones who was heir to extensive estates throughout Spain. One of these properties included Finca Pascualete. Upon visiting the run-down Finca, Romanones instantly fell in love with it and became determined to breathe new life into both the farm and the surrounding agricultural land.
In 2002, the Countess, her son and grandson, embarked on an ambitious plan that would ultimately include starting a cheesemaking operation using milk from their own sheep grazed on the agricultural land belonging to the Finca. They purchased 1,000 Lacaune milking ewes from France, with a view to establishing a working sheep dairy and, for the next six years worked tirelessly to perfect the quality of the milk, before finally setting up a cheesemaking operation in the nearby town of Trujillo.
Finca Pascualate is now run by the Countess’ grandson, Juan Figueroa. Maribel Santos is the head cheesemaker at the creamery where the sheep’s milk is transformed daily into a variety of cheeses. However, the Torta is their signature cheese.
Production of such traditional torta style cheeses is unusually complex and temperamental. For the Finca Pascualete torta, unusually, Santos adds a very small amount of starter culture to the milk at the beginning of the cheesemaking process. This small step is a substantial departure from the traditional DOP (Name protected) versions made within the same region and results in more balanced flavors in the end product, with less of the sour or bitter notes frequently associated with this style of cheese.
Cheeses are matured for at least two months before release, and this in itself is a very labor-intensive process since each day, every wheel is handled, cared for and moved about within the aging rooms to ensure controlled, even, aging and maturation.
By the time they are ready for release, the cheeses have developed a rust-orange colored rind. This type of rind would normally be associated with the presence of a bacteria called Bacterium Linens (the same type of mold found in Taleggio for example), which would put it in the washed rind category of cheeses. However, in the case of the Torta, the molds and bacteria that contribute to the cheese’s character and development come from both the tiny amount of starter culture added at the beginning of the cheesemaking process as well as the natural microflora in the maturing rooms.