Cabrales and Beyond
Discovering Spain’s hidden cheese treasures in Asturias
The Principado de Asturias is a mountainous province in northern Spain that bills itself as El Parque Nacional de Quesos (the National Park of Cheeses). This is no exaggeration, as I learned a few months ago while traveling through this cheese-rich paradise. Framed by the snowcapped Picos de Europa mountains—some of the highest in Spain—that soar above a rocky landscape scored by cold, rushing trout and salmon rivers, the bucolic villages and pastures of this region are a wonderland for any full-bore dairy enthusiast. Outdoorsy types will also find opportunities for hiking on well-marked trails, rock climbing, fishing, exploring caves (some with prehistoric wall paintings), and, on the nearby Cantabrian seacoast, swimming and beach-bumming.
In Asturias I stayed in charming and comfortable rural hotels, ate in some remarkable restaurants—both homey and world-class—drank my share of the excellent dry Asturian apple cider as well as a few interesting, graceful wines made in the northern climate, and all the while savored exceptional farmhouse cheeses. They ranged from a single-family cow’s milk blue, La Peral , from the west near Avilés, to the unique, piquant pimentón-laced Afuega’l Pitu (literally, “fire in the throat”) to the region’s big blue, Cabrales, northern Spain’s most famous cheese. I also discovered such little-known yet exceptional cheeses as Los Beyos, made from either of three milks—cow, goat, or sheep; Casín, from the native Casina breed of cow; and La Chivita, an exceptional goat cheese made along the Cares-Selles River to the far east.
In just five days, I visited nearly a dozen cheesemakers whose farms dot the rugged hillsides of the region. Above cascading rivers, their herds of dairy and meat cattle, hardy rock-scrambling goats, and longhaired sheep graze on miles of emerald green pasture. Their collective milk sustains much of the Asturias community as well as the enterprise Comercializadora Asturiana de Alimentos (COASA), a business founded by Asturian native Marino González, who has sought to preserve the region’s artisan food products, especially cheese.
González has deep roots in Spanish dairying. At the age of nine he began shepherding his family’s cows and goats in the high mountains beyond their village of Amieva, and he tells some harrowing stories of snowstorms and trying to protect his charges from wolves and bears. Later on, as a cheesemaker, González spent years making his family’s distinguished version of Los Beyos and La Collada cheeses, and then his own Cabrales. He went on to organize and bring to market the cheeses of some 40 small Asturian producers, for whom selling their cheeses outside the region, indeed outside their own often mountain-bound villages, was nearly impossible. In the early days of this endeavor, González and one of his partners, Ignacio “Nacho” Molina, would drive in small vans in different directions, collecting and delivering cheeses; after a few years they were successful enough to launch COASA. “A vibrant cheese market has helped save many villages in Asturias that were being depopulated,” says González, who now moves nearly six million dollars of artisanal Asturian food products, primarily cheese, and has built a large new state-of-the-art storage facility near Siero, outside Oviedo. The compound includes teaching kitchens, classrooms, and lecture space that serves to educate professionals and the public about Asturian cheeses and artisanal products in general.
González was my guide to the valleys, mountains, and cheese producers of Asturias, which was the equivalent of taking guitar lessons from Andrés Segovia. Offering low-key, expert commentary along the way, he led me through a remarkable series of cheese adventures. I visited producers and got a fine overview of Asturian cooking in Prendes at Pedro Morán’s Casa Gerardo, a modern local restaurant worthy of a long, indulgent detour. I also ate in rustic country eateries serving such dishes as fabada Asturiana, the Principado’s “national” bean dish (once made with wild boar), as well as venison scrapple, wild goat, corn tortos (filled with chopped meat and eggs), and an endless variety of fresh seafood and shellfish. After having sampled cheeses at the source every morning and afternoon, I usually skipped it in restaurants, but there were plenty of dishes, such as steak with Cabrales sauce, that incorporated the ingredient.
All of my Asturian meals began with very good hard apple cider, usually poured by a young bartender who raised the cider bottle above his head to full height, while holding a tilted widemouthed glass as far below his waist as possible. The cider would stream down, hitting the inner lip of the glass—with ample amounts dousing the floor—and releasing its effervescence. Once the glass of cider is handed to the customer, it’s usually knocked back in one gulp. This goes on for several rounds, and in places such as the Mirador in Arriondas, where I witnessed this expert cider pouring in all its theatrical wonder, it’s a show worthy of any traveler’s attention. (One of the bartenders is an official cider-pouring champion.) Those customers with a bottle of cider on the table are visited by a waiter dedicated to patrolling their area and pouring cider into glasses as needed, which meant that the floor of the Mirador was constantly being washed down with spilled cider.
Travelers looking for local wine with their Asturian cheese will find some nice surprises. Although Asturias is generally considered too northerly and too mountainous to support good winemaking, it is now—perhaps due to climate change—producing a couple of wines in the western Tierra de Cangas (de Narceas) region that are worthy of serious attention. These include the mercifully light (12 percent) and charming Monasterio de Corias, a red reminiscent of a Bouzy (a still red wine from Champagne grapes), and a white albarín (not albariño) and verdejo blend. Gregory Pérez, a star Spanish winemaker from Bierzo, southwest of Asturias, has also made a foray into the region to produce a promising Nibias Albarín Blanco, a crisp, sparkling white. The Casería de San Juan de Obispo distillery produces a very high-quality Tareco cider, the base of which creates an excellent artisanal eau-de-vie-type product, Alquitara del Obispo. Spain’s closest equivalent to Calvados is a spectacular, barrel-aged Salvador de Obispo; the unique Alquitara de Obispo Cidra de Postre is a deliciously tart apple dessert cider.
The tapestry of these experiences was woven with visits to cheese producers and a cheese museum in La Foz de Morcín, where Afuega’l Pitu is made, as well as to an educational honey production center, La Aula de la Miel in Peñamellera Alta. I also toured the lively Sunday-morning market in Cangas de Onís, where the breadth of Asturian products, including cheese, sausage, beans, vegetables, cider, and more, is spread across several blocks. Specialty food shops lining the main streets of this great market town offer more than two dozen local cheeses. It seemed that each place I visited connected to yet another Asturian experience, leaving me with one clear goal: to return as soon as possible to this ultimate food paradise.
Asturia’s Farmstead Favorites
Though they are lesser-known Asturian blue cheeses, La Peral and Monje are gaining a devoted following outside of Spain and are available in the American market, as are Los Beyos and Afuega’l Pitu. Two other captivating cheeses, La Chivita and Casin, are not yet available in the U.S. as of this writing.
A single-producer cheese from Quesería Redes, Casín is a distinct cheese made by the inimitable, enthusiastic Maria Ángeles “Marigel” Álvarez. She has placed her artisanal quesería and shop in a charming, very tastefully decorated eight-room country hotel; through its window one can watch the entire cheese operation. Álvarez is a champion of the raw milk she obtains from the small, red Asturian Casina cow, especially when it grazes in the high mountain pastures. Casina cows were once nearly extinct; now an association is dedicated to revitalizing the breed. Casín is not made in molds but is pressed into shape by Marigel’s hands. The cheese has a yellowish ivory color when young, with a pronounced butter aroma and initial creaminess on the palate. It finishes with a penetrating, cheddarlike sharpness. Cured versions are semi-hard and break in crumbly chunks, with more penetrating cheddar-style intensity. Álvarez claims that Casín is one of the oldest cheeses in Europe, having originated in Asturian monasteries. “My cheeses take a lot work,” Álvarez says. “They are artisan cheeses with a thousand years of history.”
Made by the husband-and-wife team of Jesús Gútierrez and Josepha Schiano-Lomoriello, La Chivita is another single-producer cheese. As a pair of renaissance subsistence farmers, Jesús and Josepha battle to stay in touch with nature, their herd of 200 goats (soon supplemented by a hundred or so captivating kids born this past spring), and the vagaries of the new world economy. Their farmhouse raw goat’s milk cheese “was inspired by and is similar to Muenster,” Gútierrez says. It often has a naturally moldy exterior (which is wiped off before sending to market), a somewhat crumbly white interior, and a creamy, mushroom flavor, and it is aged a minimum of 60 days.
This Asturian original is a naturally blue, pasteurized cow’s milk cheese, meaning that the penicillium mold responsible for its blue veining and flavor is acquired via its aging environment—humid, conditioned chambers or caves—and not added directly to the curds by the cheesemaker. In a quesería (cheeseworks) that dates to 1890, Esther Alvarez, her husband José Luís López, their sons José and Jorge, their daughter Luisa, and three employees make this ultrasmooth, unctuous, and creamy cheese with a mild blue bite. “We use no additives,” Alvarez explains, “just rennet and salt. What distinguishes the bouquet and taste of La Peral from other Asturian blue cheeses is a closely guarded family secret.” Most of the milk for La Peral is sourced from high-mountain and Asturian Frisona cows, with the exception of a small amount of ewe’s milk cream added to the vat. The cheese is aged for between two and five months.
Coming from the south to the town of Amieva, you must pass through the awesome and frightening gorge El Desfiladero de Los Beyos. Fortunately, if you travel from Cangas de Onís, the winding, narrow roads are only mildly terrifying. In this isolated mountain village, Aurora González (the sister of Asturian cheese godfather Marino González) and her husband, Salvador Pilar, make the unusual but compelling Los Beyos cheeses in different versions using either pasteurized cow, goat, or sheep’s milk. Regardless of the milk used, Los Beyos is an unusual, rustic-style cheese that is firm but not hard. It’s “chalky with a claylike texture,” says cheese expert and author Max McCalman. “When people first taste it they don’t know whether or not they like it.” If they wait for the finish, he adds, “and let it melt on the palate like butter, they’ll see what it’s about; even after it ages and dries out, the smooth lactic flavor lingers delicately, the salt is always in check, and the milk comes through.”
Manuel Monje has been making his eponymous cheese, a naturally blue pasteurized cow’s milk variety, for more than 60 years. He describes his cheese in relation to Cabrales, the iconic DPO (Denomination of Product Origin) blue cheese of the region. “Our cheeses are in the style of Cabrales,” he notes, “but each producer has his own methods. Some Cabrales cheeses come out too dark, some too white; we strive for consistency of color and flavor.” He aims for less weight per volume—based on humidity—to yield a higher-quality cheese that is creamy, easy to eat, and without as sharp a flavor as some aged Cabrales. It does not appear to be as blue when young, but the color darkens when exposed to air.
Food writer Gerry Dawes has been traveling and photographing the food and wine roads of Spain for more than 30 years. In 2003, he was awarded the Spanish National Gastronomy Prize.