Ahead of every edition of Cheese, Slow Food identifies a host country to be the focus of conferences and workshops. With the spotlight on Spain this year, we’ve been discovering there’s a lot more to Iberian cheese than manchego. On Sunday afternoon we took the opportunity to hear directly from some of the Spanish producers present at Cheese and learn more about the current panorama of artisanal dairy production in the country.
From the Asturian pastures to the volcanic landscapes of the Canary Islands, Spanish cheeses are as varied as the landscapes, breeds, pastures, climates and environments that produce them. Craft cheeses have a long-standing tradition in Spain, demonstrated by the 200 traditional varieties that exist. Today, many artisan producers are facing difficulties, and their livelihoods and cheeses are at risk. They are being confronted with a mistaken conception of food safety and hygiene, along with the rules and regulations that come with it. Determined not to give up however, Spanish producers are finding new ways to continue making cheeses, changing the way they work and adapting to the situation in which they now find themselves.
Speaking on the panel were María Jesús Jiménez (president) and Remedios Carrasco (coordinator) of Que Red Española de Queserías de Campo y Artesanas (QueRed), the national network of dairy producers in Spain. They were joined by four producers from across the country, each presenting their cheese before sharing their story. The audience was treated to Rey Silo from Asturias, Castriel from Andalucia, Tronchòn del Reyno from Sierra de Espadán, and El Cortijo de Caideros from the Canary Islands; four diverse raw milk cheeses. As the producers explained some of the difficulties they are facing, a number of common themes became evident.
The first concerned the regulations regarding the use of raw milk. Following an outbreak of brucellosis linked to unpasturized raw goat’s milk cheese, all producers on the panel, with the exception of the Canary Islands, are facing increasing restrictions. Standardized regulations are being applied to the entire milk sector, from Nestlé to small mountain producers, with little to no flexibility being offered. The same applies for other factors such as the use of materials and equipment including wooden shelves or caves for ageing. The panelists also highlighted the problem of certain coagulation materials. While they prefer to use natural agents such as Cynara cardunculus, this presents further difficulties with health inspections. María Orzáez, producer of Castriel, explained how she uses herbs and grasses to wash her cheeses, which means she needed to become a certified herb farmer and register with a health registry.
María Jesús Jiménez explained how QueRed is aiming to maintain small-scale production, while still complying with the laws. Working with producers at the local level, they deal with many issues regarding compliance and adaptation. They have organized meetings with the minister of health and minister of agriculture in Spain and submitted requests to be relieved of compliance with raw milk laws. QueRed is also part of the FACE network, the Farmhouse and Artisan Cheese and Dairy Producers European Network, recognizing that small-scale producers face similar problems and struggles. Maria explained how they are currently working on a handbook of good hygiene practice as a reference document on how to deal with complex regulations.
The message that was central to the conference is that this is no longer an issue of resistance. Spanish dairy producers prefer to talk about an offensive. They are proud of their cheeses, their cultures and their knowledge, and are willing to take the steps needed to ensure they can continue. For them “resistance” suggests they are a minority that needs to fight; they don’t see themselves in that way. The panelists finished by inviting the audience to come and visit the country and discover the cheeses for themselves, which sounds like a very tempting offer.