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:

Subscribe to future episodes by searching for Cheese Underground in your podcast app!

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.

Wisconsin Cheese Originals Basque Tour

Wisconsin Cheese Originals Basque Tour

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.

Wisconsin Cheese Originals Basque Tour

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.

Wisconsin Cheese Originals Basque Tour

Wisconsin Cheese Originals Basque Tour

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.

Wisconsin Cheese Originals Basque Tour

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.”


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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The Future of North Hendren Cooperative Dairy


Photo Caption: Sonja Williams, age 2-1/2, is already helping feed the cows at her parents’ dairy farm, and she’s not shy when it comes to showing new baby calves to podcast interviewers. She talks about her favorite cow, Clementine, and about “Surprise”, the latest born calf, peeking through the gate.

Listen to an interview with North Hendren cheesemaker Mike Vetterkind, dairy farmers Luke Yurkovich, Adam and Emily Williams, and their 2-1/2 daughter, Sonja, on Cheese Underground Radio:

Subscribe to future episodes by searching for Cheese Underground in your podcast app!

A bit of the backstory:

This week, I visited small town Wisconsin and talked with two dairy farm families, both milking small herds of just 60 cows, and who for decades, have shipped their milk to the local cheese factory: North Hendren Cooperative Dairy, near Willard.

There’s just one problem.

In January, the buyer who purchased their blue cheese for years ended their contract. The folks at North Hendren went from making 2.2 million pounds of blue cheese last year to less than 75,000 pounds so far in 2017. And now, a small group of people are trying to help a historic cheese factory supporting 24 farm families stay in business.

My story starts with Luke Yurkovic, a third generation dairy farmer. He farms near the tiny town of Willard, Wisconsin, population 539. His grandfather came to the United States in 1910 from the eastern European country of Slovenia, seeking a better life for his family. After landing in Ellis Island, the Yurkovich family moved first to Ohio, but soon traveled by train and settled down in Wisconsin to farm, clearing acres and acres of stumps left behind from logging, They used horses and dynomite to clear the land, and within 15 years, had built by hand a milking barn, the farmhouse, machine shed and pig barn from stones picked off the land. And in 1923, he helped found North Hendren Cooperative Dairy, a cheese plant still owned and operated by 24 local dairy farmers, including his grandson, Luke.

Today, Luke, his wife, Judy, and son Brenden, live on that same home farm and milk 60 cows. For nearly 100 years, three generations of Yurkoviches have sent their farm’s milk to North Hendren Cooperative Dairy, where it is made into cheese. In 2002, the plant converted from making low-profit commodity cheddar into higher-profit specialty blue cheese. They sold it all under private label to stores across the country as Black River Blue and Black River Gorgonzola.

But since January, Black River Blue has not been made by North Hendren Cooperative Dairy. The brokerage firm that purchased the factory’s blue cheese for 15 years cut their ties with the farmer cooperative and is now sourcing Black River Blue from a different cheese factory.

Since the first of the year, 24 dairy farmers, each milking an average of 50 cows, have been struggling to pay their long-time cheesemaker, Mike Vetterkind, to stick around until they can find another distributor to sell their cheese. And to further complicate things, as part of the buy-out agreement they signed with their former brokerage firm in January, the farmers are operating under a non-compete clause for one year. That means they can’t sell their award-winning blue cheese under any name – not Black River Blue – not even North Hendren Blue – to any of their former distributor customers.

I caught up with longtime Cheesemaker Mike Vetterkind and General Manager Ashlyn Nowobielski at the North Hendren cheese plant last week to learn a little more about their operation and to get an update on the situation. Mike’s been making cheese for 50 years, and was one of two cheesemakers at North Hendren who first helped the cooperative convert to blue cheese in 2000. He’s disappointed and angry that the broker buying his blue cheese canceled a long-standing contract and is instead sourcing Black River Blue elsewhere. He says the same thing happened to him at a blue cheese plant in Thorp a couple of decades ago. The same brokerage firm shut it down for the same reasons.

“The little guy is continually getting squished,” Vetterkind said. “But there’s nothing that can be done about the past. We need to move forward. Lesson learned, but it was a costly lesson.”

When Mike talks about a lifetime of quality cheesemaking and lessons learned, his words echo those of the 24 dairy farmers who own North Hendren. Many of them are second and third-generation dairy farmers. They’ve spent their lifetime milking cows, sending milk to the little cheese factory they own, and being proud of serving that cheese to their friends and neighbors.

Adam and Emily Williams are two of those dairy farmers. They milk 60 cows. And they’d like to pass their farm onto their four children: Clara, almost 7, Jack, age 5, Sonja, age 2-1/2 and little Gus, just 1 year old. The couple is young and just getting their feet planted in their farming career.

Both Emily and Adam grew up on dairy farms, and it’s a way of life they want for their children: “It’s what I know, it’s what I grew up with. I like the values it puts into people. I want it for my kids. It’s hard work, but it’s good work,” Adam says.

Note: If you’d like to support North Hendren Cooperative Dairy, you can purchase their blue and gorgonzola cheese at Fromagination in Madison, as well as Metcalfe’s Markets in Madison and Wauwatosa. Just look for the North Hendren label. Thank you to Rock Cheese, of Madison, Wisconsin, for recently adding North Hendren blue cheeses to their distribution and helping make sure North Hendren cheeses are still sold to privately-owned stores in southern Wisconsin.

Photo Caption: Third generation Wisconsin dairy farmer Luke Yurkovich


Love cheese more. This episode of Cheese Underground Radio is sponsored by Fromagination, Madison’s premier cheese shop, located in the heart of America’s Dairyland, right on the capital square. Fromagination’s team of expert cheesemongers help you select the perfect cheeses and companions for every occasion. Shop online at fromagination.com, or better yet, visit and taste the cheeses that make Wisconsin famous. Fromagination. Love cheese more.


The Caves of Faribault


Listen to an interview with the Caves of Faribault’s Jeff Jirik and Jill Ellingson on Cheese Underground Radio:

Subscribe to future episodes by searching for Cheese Underground in your podcast app!

A bit of the backstory:

Earlier this year, for the very first time, I got the chance to tour the legendary Caves of Faribault, a cheese factory perched on the edge of a river bluff in the heart of Faribault, Minnesota, less than an hour south of the Twin Cities.

Faribault is the definition of Midwest nice. It’s the kind of place where folks who watch you drive down their street more than once will amble to the curb, motion you to roll down your car window, and ask you if you’re lost. It’s the kind of place where a cheesemaker is willing to give a cheese geek a tour of his award-winning blue cheese factory, instead of attending his hometown Faribault Flannel Formal, an annual spring fling where the locals dress up in their finest flannel and bring their meatiest hot dish to see if it takes first prize at the Lumberjack Hot Dish contest.

I’m talking of course about cheesemaker Jeff Jirik, the man who brought the Caves of Faribault back from the brink in 2001, after the previous owner closed the factory and abandoned the caves to instead make blue cheese at a more modern facility in a different state. Today, Jeff and his team make some of the best blue cheese in the United States. And while he was happy to give me a special tour of the sandstone caves that make his blue cheese famous, he wasn’t super keen on having a bunch of recording equipment trail him around in the dark. That’s why we met again a few days later to talk for Cheese Underground. This time, he drove my way – to my favorite little tavern in Monroe, Wisconsin.

Today, the Caves of Faribault are perhaps best known for making aging AmaBlu®, which was the first blue cheese made in the United States and created at the caves in 1936 by Felix Frederiksen. In the 1930s, Felix traveled to Minnesota in search of St. Peter Sandstone, geologically rare across the nation but abundant in Minnesota as a result of the last glacial age. Felix found the abandoned caves that had been carved in the 1850s for Fleckentstein Brewing Co, which prior to modern day refrigeration, used the caves to store beer at cooler temperatures.

You have to remember that prior to the 1930s, all of the blue cheese consumed in the United States was imported from Europe. World War Two put constraints on importation, so when Felix started making blue cheese, it was immediately a hit. He called his blue “AmaBlu” by taking the ‘ama’ from Latin for “I love” and ‘blu’ – B –L – U as the international spelling of blue.

Between the 1940s and 1970s, Felix, with his company, Treasure Cave, Inc., oversaw many more caves hollowed out of the sandstone bluff. In the 1980s, Jeff was hired by the company then running the caves. However, Treasure Cave ended up closing down in Faribault in the 1990s because the company that had bought the caves moved production to a conventional cheese making facility in another state. Jeff moved on, too, but he never forgot the blue cheese he had made in Faribault.

With two partners, Jeff got the opportunity to purchase the old blue cheese factory in May 2001. He renamed it Caves of Faribault and spent months and months bringing the facility back to standards. Today, the business is owned by Swiss Valley, but Jeff and his team still make AmaBlu, the original blue cheese aged in the famous St. Peter Sandstone caves, as well as AmaBlu Gorgonzola and St. Pete’s Select, a super-premium blue cheese.

The cheese plant and caves are managed by Jill Ellingson, whom Jeff refers to as “the current keeper of the caves.” Jill grew up on a dairy farm not far from the factory. Her grandparents actually delivered milk in cans to the cheese plant in the 1940s. Today she oversees all cheesemaking and affinage inside the plant and the caves, with a production team of 10 people making six vats of cheese a day.

I asked Jeff and Jill if they’d ever gotten lost in the caves. Both had their own stories of electricity issues, but both found their way to the entrance. I’m grateful neither let me get lost in the Caves of Faribault. The caves are truly a special place. They’re home to amazing cheese, made by good-hearted people.

Caves of Faribault Plant Manager Jill Ellingson with wheels of blue cheese.

Thank you to Dairy Connection Inc. for sponsoring this episode of Cheese Underground Radio. Dairy Connection Inc. is a supplier of cultures, enzymes, cheese-making supplies and trusted expertise since 1999. A family-owned business based in Madison, Wisconsin, the dedicated Dairy Connection team takes pride in its commitment to be the premier supplier to artisan, specialty and farmstead cheese-makers nationwide. To learn more, please visit www.dairyconnection.com.

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