A Camino of Cheese
When people think of Spanish cheeses, they automatically think of manchego, a rich, golden, semi firm sheep’s milk cheese originating from the central plains of Castilla-La Mancha. However, when I walked to Santiago, I discovered a world of cheese that goes beyond Spain’s most well known cheese. In enjoying these cheeses, I obtained a better understanding of the geography and resources of each region of the Camino Francés. Some cheeses may seem very similar but they all have their own distinctive characteristics because of their provenance or terruño, the Spanish term for the impact that local environmental factors have on the development and production of artisan food products.
As many do, I started walking the Camino in St. Jean Pied de Port in the French Basque country or the Pays Basque. During the short time I was there, I was able to indulge on the Ossau-Iraty cheese made out of sheep milk. The curds are uncooked and the cheese is pressed to give it a very compact, dense texture. The rind is pale orange to gray, and the body color ranges from white to cream depending on how it has been matured. Matured for at least six months, the texture is smooth and creamy but firm and may display some small small holes (eyes). It is often enjoyed with black cherry jam as cherries grow in abundance in the area.
After crossing the Pyrenees and into Spain, you are in the Navarra region, home to the running of the bulls and Ernst Hemingway’s love affair with Spain. The most well known cheese in this region is Idiazabal, a traditional hard, farmhouse cheese also made of raw, unpasteurized sheep milk. It has a compact, dry, firm texture with a slightly oily mouth feel and a light smoky aroma. The natural rind is smooth and pale yellow to amber in color. It is aged at least two months but sometimes much longer in which case it becomes very sharp tasting and is often used for grating. On the Camino, I enjoyed this cheese inside a bocadillo (a sandwich) with Serrano ham or by itself with some red wine.
Most people associate La Rioja with some pretty amazing red wines and rightfully so. But they have no idea that the area is also well known for a particular cheese, Los Cameros. The owner of a tapas bar in Logroño explained to me that in the southern part of the region there is a rugged mountainous area that is perfect for raising goats and sheep and home to its namesake cheese. The milk of these animals is often blended to produce a full flavored, highly intense cheese, with a firm and crumbly texture. The off-white cheese is wrapped in a cotton cloth to give it its shape and then rubbed with olive oil during the aging process contributing to its aroma and color. I personally enjoyed this cheese with olives but you can also enjoy it with quince paste, cured ham, or a selection of fresh, seasonal fruits.
Once you start walking the plains of the Castilla y Leon region, you don’t see a lot of livestock along the way. But an area slightly north of the Camino, still in the Leon province, is famous for Valdeón, a blue cheese made with a blend of cow and goat milk. It is aged for about two months before being wrapped in sycamore leaves. The leaves make an impressive presentation on any cheese platter. Aromas of damp earth, tobacco and vanilla emerge as the leaves are unwrapped exposing the ivory color, richly veined and creamy cheese. The flavor is salty, pronounced, piquant and long lasting. I particularly like to enjoy it with dried figs or quince paste.
Once you enter Galicia, the final stretch of the Camino, it quickly becomes evident that you are in the “land of a million cows.” You are often walking side-by-side with them and, at times, you need to stop to let them go by. They after all are the “queens of the land” and take priority! These grass-fed cows are of the Rubias Gallegas breed. They derive their name, which means “blond galicians,” from their caramel colored skin/hair. The milk of these cows is used to produce some of Galicia’s most iconic cheeses.
One of the first villages in Galicia that one reaches on the way to Santiago is O Cebreiro. The cheese from this village, Cebreiro, resembles a chef’s hat or a mushroom in shape. This cheese comes in a fresh variety that has been aged for only two days, and a matured variety that has been aged for about 6 weeks. The fresh variety has a creamy, slightly acidic taste and a spreadable texture while the mature version is firm and more piquant. I’m biased towards the fresh version and love eating it with honey and nuts
About three days before arriving in Santiago you come to the comarcas (local regions) of Arzúa and Ulloa which are home to the towns of Palas del Rei and Arzúa along the Camino and where the Arzúa-Ulloa cheese is produced. This soft cheese, made from raw or pasteurized milk, is matured for at least six days and is cylindrical in shape with rounded edges. Its rind is thin and pliant, medium yellow, bright, clean and smooth. The cheese itself ranges from white to pale yellow and has a creamy consistency and fresh taste. It is low in salt and has a slight acidic touch. My fondest recollection of this cheese was when I had it as a simple snack in the middle of the afternoon and spread it on fresh bread.
The better-known cousin of the Arzúa Ulloa is the Tetilla. It derives its name (“little tit”) because it is shaped like a woman’s breast. It is aged anywhere between 10 and 30 days. Its yellow skin is firm yet elastic and the compact interior is relatively soft. The color ranges from ivory to light yellow. It has a very creamy, slightly buttery mouth feel and the taste is mild with very little salt and very low acidity. It is commonly served as dessert in a Galician meal with fresh fruit or quince paste.
The final cheese I enjoyed on the Camino was the San Simon da Costa. It is similarly shaped to the Tetilla except a bit more elongated. It is smoked for a few hours over birchwood and then aged between 30 to 45 days. It’s skin is smooth, and waxy, with a dark tan color. The interior of the cheese is firm and smooth. Aromatic and smoky, the taste is mild and buttery. Because of its smokiness, I prefer to enjoy this cheese all by itself just accompanied by a glass of Albariño.
I have yet to find Cebreiro cheese outside of Spain, but all the other cheeses mentioned are available at specialty cheese shops or at Spanish specialty food shops.