The succinct observations of a sommelier
Spain is an especially fortunate place compared to the rest of the Mediterranean and the world. Through its cheeses we can appreciate its soil, geography, climate, vegetation, animals, history and personality. Valleys, woods, huge plateaus and plains, volcanic lands, subtropical areas, desert, fertile Mediterranean coastland, generous pastureland interspersed with holm oak and cork oak maquis. Plus the native dairy species, which have adapted to this habitat over the centuries: goats and sheep, which are more numerous here than in neighboring countries, and a variety of breeds of cattle comparable to that found in other European nations. Along with the influences and exchanges that have taken place with all the other great human cultures that have coexisted here, these characterize the universe of Spanish flavors and aromas.
For these reasons, the milk of Spanish animals and the hands of the men and women of this nation join together to mould the immortality and peculiarity of a unique land, with untiring cultural development, into a shape – that of milk.
Enthusiasts of cheese and Spain will find the country’s DOP cheeses – Alt Urgell i la Cerdanya, Cabrales, Cantabria, Idiazábal, Roncal, Mahón, Majorero, Manchego, Murcia and Murcia al Vino, La Serena, Picón-Bejes-Tresviso, Quesucos de Liébana, Palmero, Tetilla, Zamorano – at Cheese 2001 in Bra. In the handmade cheese market, let yourself be seduced by outstanding examples of raw milk products, such as Asturian Cabrales and other products presented by young up and coming producers.
If, as well as these products, you are a little in love with Spain itself, the new universe of experience and in particular the one opening up before your eyes, the four exciting Taste Laboratories dedicated to the Iberian Peninsula will provide you with a really in-depth and concrete view of the memories, breeds, flavors and diversity of such a complex country. Through these cheeses and wines you will gradually, almost without realizing, discover this nation’s story. You will eat and drink, and feed on the eternal features of milk and wine.
Let’s follow the old trail once trodden by the native animal breeds throughout the whole of the Iberian peninsula, and take a close look at every corner of the landscape.
To the north there are more cows than sheep and a greater variety of cheeses. In Galizia the rubia gallega cow grazes the sweet green pastures and gives thick, creamy, fragrant milk. On the Cordillera Cantabrica the leonesa, casina, tudanca and other cow breeds feed on the rich summer pastures. However this area also produces goat’s and – in lesser quantities – sheep’s milk.
On the Navarre side and in the Basque area, we find the milk of lacha sheep, a highly productive and perfectly acclimatized breed, which finds ideal grazing all year round and thus produces strong, tasty cheeses which last well.
Moving down from the east towards the Mediterranean coast, we find cows in the Pyrenees and in the east, mainly goats and their fresh, soft cheeses, both sweet and savory.
Further south live the goats and sheep of the Andalusian and Estremadura breeds: the retina, verata and blanca andalusa goats and others, which give thick, floral-scented milk, and the merinas, montesinas and segureñas sheep whose milk gives a rustic cheese with a typical bitter-sour flavor and a smooth, fat, sometimes almost elastic consistency.
In the center of the country are many sheep breeds – castellana, churra, manchega – and many similar varieties of sheep’s cheese suitable for medium or long maturation.
The breed expresses all the typical features of the land itself, the surrounding environment, the animals and the population. The cheese of La Mancha, made with the milk of manchega sheep, captures the hard implacable climate of the Castilian plateau. From the seventh to the eleventh centuries, the Arabs called this territory Manyà, ‘land without water’, which then became La Mancha. This is the area described by Miguel de Cervantes in 1605 in his epic novel, Don Quixote, as a parched region producing cheese ‘…which could not be harder if it were made of sand and limestone’.
These cheeses, and others still, express their origins and the real skill and expertise of the local dairymen. At Cheese 2001, along with these dairy products, you will find the wines of the Priorato, a small but important wine-producing area in the south of Catalonia, which has undergone a real generational metamorphosis. When you drink this wine, you can taste the fragrance of its land of origin. Rich extract, full body, high alcohol content: the land blends with these strong elements to form an excellent, still-unexplored wine which will come into its own over the years. Plus five great pioneer wines – a remarkable selection of Clos de Priorato (Clos De l’Obac, Clos Martinet, Clos Mogador, Cims de Porrera and Les Terrasses) – made by five intrepid producers who have managed to raise the fruit of this land to its rightful level and continue to express its origin and character.
Our memory takes us back to the purest aromas of Spain. Hence, merina sheep’s milk, which is used to make cheese, and the tempranillo grapes grown for wine.
Merina sheep’s milk is harsh, salty, rich in protein.
Wines made with 100% tempranillo grapes have a distinctive nose that reflects the varietal aromas of ripe red fruits and sometimes rich, black fruit extract.
These wines are full of character. Here the wine absorbs the land and passes on its strong mineral nature to the grapes, so that when it is aged in barriques it becomes an explosion of fruit, mineral aromas, spicy overtones and delicate leather. The wine is generous, well-structured, brilliant in its purity and assemblage.
The wines – Casa Gualda C&J Selección, Malleolus di Emilio Moro, Cuvé Campanario di Abadia Retuerta and Tinta de Toro di Bodegas Toresanas – display the fascinating versatility of cencibel, mazuelo, tempranillo and tinta de toro varietals to their best advantage.
Allow yourself to be surprised, become a child again, interpreting and assimilating unknown, different skills, discovering new starting points, moving away and coming back again. Then, with a certain detachment, you can compose your ideas and fleeting memories and get to know the real pleasure of taste.
Perhaps Iberian cheeses and Cava spumante wines from Catalonia in north-eastern Spain with their overtones ranging from nostalgia to exuberance, contribute towards helping those with confused ideas to see things more clearly – let’s hope so.
Cheese is the only type of food that is really hard to serve with Cava spumantes. Cava can be rough and indigestible, if served with soft cheeses; on the contrary, it can be a surprisingly gallant and unusual accompaniment for pressed cheeses. Cava takes its name from the Catalan term indicating the place where wine is aged – a synonym for the cellar, the winery – and it is an interesting and surprising discovery. It is made following the traditional champenoise method, but the result is completely different from other wines of this kind. To try and make a comparison would be like comparing prosciutto di Parma with a rough iberico or jamón de pato (duck ham).
Cava spumante wines are still almost unknown around the world: only the larger companies have exported them and few professional tasters have tasted them outside their production area.
The grapes used to make Cava are mainly the following varieties: stylish, esoteric macabeo, smooth, full-bodied xarel-lo and fresh, lively parellada. Together these three grapes varieties spend nine months resting on their lees (organic material and yeasts), which keeps them alive and allows them to form a harmonized structure, ready to express itself at the moment of dégorgement and reveal their cheerful nature. Effervescent, playful, creamy and complex – the feather in the cap of the Penedés.
Seeking further every day into the territory of diversity, traveling 840km from north to south, 580km from east to west, to discover hundreds of tiny micro-climates, and as many hints and hues of color or capacities to resist cold or burning heat. You need inspiration and intuition.
A noble, daring and bold company will gather for Cheese 2001. Praise and commendation await goat cheese from Aracena in Estremadura: mature Requesón from Roncal di Navarra, unique of its kind; Flor de Guía from the Canary Islands; the cheese of the Alcudia Valley in Castilia, made from merinas sheep cheese, like the one from the Mancha, and lastly, the San Simón from Galizia.
These great cheeses will be accompanied by special wines from the land of contrasts. Wines both sweet and dry, generous and miserly, calm and edgy, white, rosé and red, from fertile land or parched terrain, where the must is so complex as to be impossible to drink in a single wine.
Special cheeses and wines for special moments, to sip with snacks or at the end of a meal. Often we don’t have time for proper digestion, to step out of our routine and try new salvific sensations that would prevent us from sinking into monotonous torpor. Once again, as ever, through the discovery of complexity we reach the very essence of things.
One last humble piece of advice: it is good to seek harmony which is not always perfect, not always straightforward. It is good to seek out exciting, potent memories, understand the soul of each wine, ask it where it came from and where it’s going, study its strenghts and weaknesses. And then think of the land and the fruit, taste the dryness and the sweetness, the sourness and bitterness – and always remember what we have been lucky enough to know.
Marta Busquets Net, a Barcelona-born communications expert and accomplished wine taster, currently collaborates with Slow Food in Bra, Italy
(Translated by Ailsa Wood)
photo: the Spanish cheese Picón Bejes-Tresviso