Linda Wainwright, based on Tenerife Island, has traveled to Asturias to write about the region. Fun travel advice unfolds as she walks through caves to smell the cheeses ripen to perfection, watches cows stand in the roads, and visits villages that are dependent on a food van as they have no stores. All this, traveling back in time to a simple way of life and connection with the earth.
By Linda Wainwright
I’m eating one of the best meals of my life, seated between my guide, Juanjo, and his neighbor, Rogelio Lopez Campo, who just happens to be a maker of the famed Cabrales cheese. I am mesmerized. In fact, feeling distinctly privileged to be in this company, listening to this conversation, which concerns what the English would call “country matters.” It takes me back to a childhood in rural England and my grandfather passing the time of day with a neighbor.
We are in the region of Asturias, the village of Sotres in Spain’s Picos de Europa National Park. Both men have spent their lives in these sheltering, green mountains. It’s a world away from the image I had of an industrial Asturias.
Sotres began life as a mujada, a collection of dwellings where herdsmen and cheese makers spent the summer months, whilst their cows, sheep and goats grazed the rich pastures. Gradually, people began to stay in this peaceful hamlet year round, and now there are around 80 permanent residents. There is no bakery, no bank, no post office. Everything is brought up from the towns below.
As we strolled to the elaborador de quesos (cheese maker’s), a traveling greengrocer arrived, and the ladies of the hamlet gathered around his van to buy their fruit and vegetables. If you need something, which cannot be delivered, then you have to transport it yourself – so if you forget the sugar you have to learn to like your coffee unsweetened!
It’s a life many of us envy despite the remoteness, or because of it. The tranquility is tangible. At the end of the visit I didn’t want to leave.
Yesterday we had visited a mujada, which is still just that, a summer dwelling place. As we wove our way around the twisting roads, I’d was surprised to see the Asturian mountain cows grazing right by the roadside, or even ambling along, making us wait. I wasn’t accustomed to seeing cattle at this kind of altitude, but this is a sure-footed mountain breed.
We walked about a half hour from Lake Ercina over sodden pastures, me with snatches from The Sound of Music running through my brain. We met a pastor (shepherd/cowherd) who spends his entire summer in the high pastures, making Gamoneu cheese, as his father did before him. There is no road, just a track. The only vehicles which can make it up there are 4 x 4s.
He invited us into the small cabin, made from local stone, which is his summer home. It was simply furnished, a sturdy wooden table dominating the room, and a sort of balcony above, where feed for the animals was kept back in the day. In a similar cabin, close by, I was allowed, after carefully covering my boots with plastic covers, to see where the day’s milk was beginning its transition to the acclaimed white-blue cheese, and the smoke room where the cheeses were stacked according to the day they were made. After the smoking is completed they are taken to a cave to mature.
Gamoneu is especially prized because it is only made for a limited time each year. It’s a mixture of cow, goat and sheep milk, and the cows don’t give milk during winter. There is a generator so that milking can be done mechanically, but even so, sometimes it’s still done by hand in the time-honored way. I asked about European Union regulations and how they had affected production. Some things have had to be modified, and inspectors make regular checks, but so far tradition has mostly won out.
Production tradition had also won in the village of Sotres with their Cabrales cheese, as I experience the actual queseria (the place where the cheese is made). It is all shiny, spotless surfaces, but the cave where the cheeses mature is almost otherworldly. The generator was out when we visit, but Juanjo is prepared with head torches. Although the walls run with water, so that there is no doubting that you’re in the bowels of the earth, it oddly doesn’t feel damp, or perhaps that’s because it’s damp outdoors in any event! Its ceiling is high after the initial entryway, and the sides are lined with shelves containing cheeses in different stages of maturity. Our torches pick up the different colors, the cheeses darken as they mature. There is 95% humidity in here, and a constant year-round temperature, whatever the weather above ground.
Rogelio goes out and returns with a huge wicker basket full of the day’s cheeses. Although they are now brought to the cave entrance by car, the baskets are still used as they always have been. After remaining 15 days in a storeroom, being regularly checked for any problems, here the cheeses remain for a minimum of sixty days, being turned by hand every 15 days. The longer the cheese matures the creamier the texture.
That texture is something I am soon to discover. In the queseria where Rogelio’s wife, Maria Eugenia, is checking progress on the day’s output from around 14 head of cattle, he slices into a cheese. The color surprises me. It’s grey, rather than blue, and its texture is creamy and smooth like butter, with that distinctive tang from the blue. Cabrales is the only cheese in the world, I am told, which is naturally blue. Others have the color induced.
Cheese is a very fundamental food, and the pride Asturians take in their artisan production speaks volumes for the region. Only those meeting the strict quality controls are issued the Denominación de Origen (Certificate of Origin).
I’m thrilled to know that despite the rigorous controls both Cabrales and Gamoneu are still made in the most authentic ways possible. A lot of manual work is involved, and it’s clear to me that love and pride are key ingredients.
Of course our lunch has to end with this star of Asturian cuisine. It’s not a easy as you might think after a goat’s cheese salad which would have been my normal lunch; followed by a delicious, traditional fabada (white bean stew); and a mouth-watering casserole of goat with French fries. But, well, I don’t know when I may next pass this way, and so I happily slather it onto chunks of fresh bread, to be washed down with the famous Asturian cider. Since a huge percent of Cabrales production is sold locally, it might be a while before I get to treat my taste buds again – although I really hope it will be very soon.
Linda transplanted to the Canary Islands more than 20 years ago. Having embraced her Third Age, she can be found wandering around the islands, usually with camera and notepad in hand. She blogs at http://islandmomma.wordpress.com/