Spain’s Artisan Cheeses: A Survivor's Tale

Spain’s traditional cheeses are so popular in the U.S. now that it’s hard to believe their survival was once threatened. And not so long ago, either.

In 1960, with Spain’s economy suffering under Franco, Spanish technocrats issued a decree that all but wiped out artisan cheesemaking. The decree required the country’s cheese producers to process a minimum of 10,000 liters of milk per day. Overnight, most of Spain’s traditional cheeses became illegal, says Enric Canut, a leading authority on Spanish cheese today.

Nevertheless, local artisans continue to produce their cheeses under the table. After Franco’s death in 1975, Canut and others began trying to promote these traditional cheeses, although the decree remained in place. At a trade fair in 1980, where many of these re-emerging but illegal cheeses were showcased, the minister of agriculture told Canut and his colleagues, “I don’t know whether to close your booth or congratulate you.”

In 1984, the decree was repealed and Spain’s artisan cheesemakers could exercise their craft openly. A dozen years later, Spain began promoting itself as “the Land of 100 Cheeses.”

“It’s a powerful slogan,” says Canut, “but we make more than 100, and we are continually inventing.”

Today, prominent Spanish chefs have begun to highlight the country’s cheeses in their restaurants. Spain does not have a tradition of the cheese course or cheese cart, as in France, but that hasn’t stopped chefs from finding ways to spotlight cheese. At Carme Ruscalleda’s three-Michelin-star Restaurant Sant Pau, near Barcelona, the menu includes a monthly-changing cheese platter, featuring tasting portions of five different cheeses with appropriate accompaniments.

Since she began this practice in 2000, Chef Ruscalleda has featured more than 200 cheeses and inspired others with her creative matches. “She is always looking for the contrasts,” says Canut.

At his restaurant Casa Gerardo in the Asturias region, chef Pedro Morán has explored ways to cook with the region’s famous cabrales blue cheese. The classic usage is in a cream sauce for beef, where cabrales’s pungency works—if you don’t use too much, warns Morán. He has made ice cream with cabrales, but because the cheese is so strong, he likes to cut it with the milder, creamier and less salty la peral, another Asturian blue cheese. A mix of 80 percent La Peral and 20 percent cabrales makes a blue-cheese blend that is mellow enough to use in desserts.

© 2017 The Culinary Institute of America