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On Location: Cheese Caves in Sotres de Cabrales, Spain

Wisconsin Cheese Originals Basque Tour

Listen to a podcast with Queseria Main owner Javier Diaz, translated by Sandra Benzal, and hear more about the caves of Cabrales on Cheese Underground Radio:

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A bit of the backstory:

High up in the Picos de Europa mountains in the autonomous community of Asturias, lies the tiny parish of Sotres de Cabrales, Spain. The nearest school or grocery store is 45 minutes away, and the number of sheep and cows grazing on alpine pastures vastly exceeds the hamlet’s human population.

There is a saying in the municipality of Cabrales that the higher the village, the better the cheese. And in Sotres de Cabrales, elevation 3,368 feet, there is a feeling that indeed, some of the best blue cheese in the world is made here. That’s because every two days for 10 months of the year, the husband and wife team of Jessica Lopez and Javier Diaz craft Cabrales, a blue cheese made that must be made from unpasteurized cow’s milk or blended in the traditional manner with goat and/or sheep milk.

Although Cabrales is a blue cheese, no blue mold spores are added to the milk during its production, and wheels are not pierced to allow the introduction of oxygen to facilitate any blooming of blue mold in man-made openings. Instead, during its production, cheese wheels are loosely pressed, and the cheesemaker relies on hundreds of years of blue mold built up in ancient limestone caves to naturally inoculate the wheels from the outside in to create one of the strongest, deepest blues in the world.

At Queseria Main in Sotres de Cabrales, Spain, every four days, Jessica, Javier, his father-in-law and brother-in-law transport the wheels of cow/goat milk blended Cabrales that Jessica makes to three different natural limestone caves in the Picos de Europa mountains. One cave is fairly close, and wheels may be transported to within 200 feet of the cave opening via motor vehicle. Another cave is further away and accessible only by foot, which means each person packs between four and six wheels in special backpacks and then hikes to the cave opening to place the wheels on wooden boards deep inside. A third cave is too far away to carry cheese on foot, so wheels are placed in packs on horseback, and horses are led to the cave opening, where the cheeses will age for four to 10 months underground on wooden shelves. In each cave, after new cheeses are placed on wooden shelves, existing wheels are washed and flipped, and wheels ready for sale are transported back to the factory in Sotres de Cabrales.

All of the milk used in the production of Cabrales must come exclusively from animals in the region of Asturias, Spain. Cabrales is a PDO cheese (Protected Designation of Origin), and before gaining this protected status in 1981, was traditionally wrapped in leaves from the Sycamore Maple. Today, modern regulations require it to be sold in a dark-green-colored aluminum foil with the stamp of the PDO Queso de Cabrales.

Javier and Jessica have been making cheese for 10 years, and learned the craft from her parents, who own another Cabrales creamery nearby. The parents also allowed them to start aging their cheeses in caves where they had rights to do so. In Cabrales, all of the natural caves have been claimed, and the only way a new producer can gain access to aging space is by inheriting a cave, or taking over a cave when another cheesemaker ceases production.

In addition to the cave granted to them by her parents, over the years, Javier and Jessica have gained access to two additional caves that were not being used (and with good reason – they are only accessible via horse or on foot), but the couple is young and eager to forge their way in the world, and works extremely hard in their Cabrales production.

In fact, they were extremely gracious this week and allowed my group of 20 Wisconsin Cheese Originals tour members to enter their nearest cave, a 15-minute hike down the mountainside. When we arrived, Javier hooked up a generator to provide light. He then unlocked a steel door inserted into a natural rock wall, and we descended down 40 steps into a natural limestone cave filled with wooden shelves of Cabrales cheese.

Javier and Jessica are young, and at 10 years into cheesemaking, are successfully and slowly building their business to allow more people like us to view their cheesemaking and aging caves. After we hiked back up the mountain (and I tried not to die from being out of breath), the couple hosted us at picnic tables outside their creamery and filled us with tastings of their 4-month and 10-month wheels of Cabrales. paired with bread, fruits and quince paste.

The only sound beside the chatter of 19 Americans and one Australian was the faint clammering of bells from nearby sheep, a few caws from a Magpie looking for a wedge of bread, and the chugging of a cement truck climbing the steep and narrow road to the village, where we noticed a new house was being built. Like many small, rural communities in America, the rural villages of Spain are empty of young people. But in the tiny village of Sotres de Cabrales, Spain, it was amazing to see a young couple continuing the ancient tradition of making one of the oldest blue cheeses in the world. “It is hard work, but it is honest work,” Javier told us. “And we are proud to do it.”

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This episode of Cheese Underground Radio is sponsored by Caves of Faribault, makers of cave aged blue cheeses in Faribault, Minnesota. Try their Amablu, the first blue cheese made and marketed in the United States, or St. Pete’s Select, a signature premium American blue cheese. Caves of Faribault cheeses are the only cheeses in America aged in natural, underground sandstone caves. Learn more at www.FaribaultDairy.com.

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