Meet the Spanish Blues

David | Blog | August, 27 2010 | No Comment

As a starting point,  let’s talk a bit about Spanish cheese. While not as well known as its French and Swiss counterparts, Spanish cheese tradition is very rich. There are more than a dozen cheeses from Spain with a protected designation of origin. In many regions of Spain the climate and terrain are suited more to goats and sheep than to cows, and subsequently, no cheesemakers in the world do more with mixed milk (from two or three of main animal types) than the Spaniards.

As with other cheese cultures, a handful of Spanish cheeses are purposefully infected with bacteria to produce blue mold. The first of those cheeses I every met was Cabrales, which a sampled in a fantastic Spanish cheese event some years ago at the Vermont Institute for Artisan Cheese. I’ve never met a cheese I didn’t like, and I really liked tasting an array of them accompanied by Spanish wines at the VIAC event.   

Valdeon wrapped in leaves

Cabrales is a farmstead cheese made in the Picos de Europa Mountains of Northern Spain. It is aged in caves which are aired by cool, damp, and sea breeze blowing up from the Bay of Biscay. Traditionally Cabrales is made with a mixture of cow, sheep and goat milk. The cheese has a strong aroma and a nice tanginess. It is not too salty, but does bite the tongue. Some describe it as having woody, lemony tones. Cabrales is very crumbly and does not weep the way Roquefort and other moist blues do.

Noted San Francisco cheese writer Janet Fletcher says she loves Cabrales, but that for her money, Valdeon is a better Spanish blue. Valdeon is produced in the mountainous northwest region of Leon, also from mixed milk. Fletcher notes that the two cheeses are sometimes confused:

 Retailers sometimes label Valdeon as Cabrales, possibly out of ignorance, possibly because they think it will sell better under the more familiar name. One sure   indication that you’re getting what you want is the wrapper. Cabrales is always foil wrapped; Valdeon is enveloped in sycamore maple leaves, which makes it especially attractive on a cheese board.

Valdeon’s flavor is famously strong, and descriptions warn to place it as the final cheese in nearly any flight. Fletcher says its flavor is “in your face,” and that she even tones down the intensity with honey.  A lesser-known blue from the peninsula is Picón, another three-milk blue cheese from the mountains of Picos de Europain the Northern region of Cantabria. It has a sticky, soft rind that is gray, with yellowish-green spots, and is also traditionally wrapped in leaves.

To match the intensity of these cheeses you will need a very flavorful beer. An imperial IPA with some malt backbone (Three Floyds Dreadnaught, or Avery Maharaja would be my picks) or a big malty beer like a barley wine, a good imperial stout or a strong malty Belgique such as Lost Abbey’s Ten Commandments would also do the trick.

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