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A Foreigner’s Guide to Spanish Cheese: Cow / Vaca (Part 3 of 5)

Traversing the craggy mountaintops and mountainsides of the Iberian terrain, we descend to the lush, green pastures of the mountains and valleys of (predominantly) Northern Spain. Our gaze turns from the agile and energetic goat (cabra) to the more docile and passive cow (vaca). They graze primarily on the stretch of land that extends from the Cantabrian Mountains (Galicia to Pais Vasco) to the Pyrenees (Navarra, Aragon, and Cataluña). The continental climate ensures copious amounts of rainfall and cool temperatures. Green year-round the pastures are a constant source of nourishment for the cows (and sheep) that graze there.

The region of Galicia (in northwestern Spain) produces four varieties of cow’s milk cheese. Tetilla Gallega, Ulloa and Arzúa are produced primarily in Central Galicia. The cheeses are typically unaged, smooth, and soft inside with a light and slightly salty flavor. The relative popularity of these cheeses across the whole of Spain (and now the world) is due to the sweet and dense milk produced by the Rubia Gallega – a native breed of dairy cow. The foothills of the Cantabrian Mountains are now famous for San Simón (and the much lesser known Cebreiro). San Simón is known for its intense, smoky flavor and recognizable smell; but more of that in just a moment.

Other areas of northern Spain produce a multitude of cow’s milk cheese. Due in part to its relative inaccessibility, Asturias is one of Spain’s finest cheese-producing regions, turning out around 30 different types of cheese (not just cow’s milk). Two ancient cow’s milk cheeses are produced here. The first is Afuega’l Pitu, a fresh soft cheese pressed by hand, and Casín, a farmhouse cheese made from unprocessed milk of the Casín cow. The region of Cantabria produces a cream cheese known as Queso de Nata, a smooth and soft cheese, as well as a few other somewhat obscure cheeses (most of which are not exported). Along the French border in the Pyrenees, cows (and sheep) are kept as livestock. Historically kept for meat and dairy, the region is now producing cow’s milk cheeses (again, most of which never see the shores of the US).

Finally, the Balearic Islands – namely, Menorca – is home to the beloved cow’s milk cheese, Mahón. The climate on this island transforms it into abundant and fertile pastures. Thus, dairy farming is one of the primary livelihoods on the island and cheese is produced all over the island. Eaten both fresh and aged the rind is either natural or oiled with paprika. All of these areas also produce cheese mixing cow’s milk with sheep and/or goat milk, but we will venture there in our finale.

Knowing how easy it is to find your favorite bovine’s product in the US, I was still a bit surprised as to how difficult it was to find a solid variety of cow’s milk cheeses for this tasting; but diligence paid off. I was able to find three of the most readily available cheeses as well as one “special” one. With my tasting of Mahón, Tetilla, San Simón, and Afuega’l Pitu (w/paprika) I enjoyed some delicious accompaniments. Among them, some fruit and a Dulce de Manzana Casero (from Mitica). Additionally, five wines were tasted alongside the cheese; but first, a little more about each of these cheeses.

Cow’s Milk Cheeses:

Mahón (2 Types): Gaining Denominación de Origen Protegida (DOP) status in 1985, Mahón is produced on Menorca, the most northerly of the Balearic Islands in the Mediterranean. The salty sea air and humidity ever-present on the island help to give the milk (from the Frison, “Mahonesa,” and/or Alpine Brown breeds) high acidity as well as a touch of saltiness. A buttery, sharp taste along with sweet nuttiness is reminiscent of all Mahón, regardless of aging. The outer rind is typically orange in color, having been rubbed with a mixture of butter, oil and paprika. Four types of Mahón abound: mild, medium-cured, cured, and mature. Tasting the mild as well as the mature proved a tremendous picture into the versatility of this cheese in the hands of true artisans. The mild cheese was soft and white in color, lightly salty and acidic. A lighter cheese, this one paired better with the white wines in the tasting. Alternately, the mature Mahón was dark yellow (almost golden), quite dry, and crumbly. Salty and just the slightest bit spicy this cheese was a perfect pair for both red and white wines alike.

Tetilla: One of my fondest memories of living in Spain was a trip to Santiago de Compostela and seeing (and eating) Queso Tetilla along with a glass of Ribeiro wine. Tetilla received DOP status in 1993 and is the most popular cheese in Galicia, undoubtedly due to the breast-like shape that gives the cheese its name (tetilla means “small breast” in Spanish). Made from the milk of the Frisons, Alpine Brown and/or Rubia Gallega, Tetilla is made by curdling the milk with animal rennet followed by a maturing period of 10 to 30 days in the cool, damp environment of the Galician climate. Thick and smooth, the cheese is paste-like with an intense creaminess and silky, clean flavor. This is also a great melting cheese and is incredible when lightly sautéed inside padrón peppers.

San Simón: Named San Simón de la Cuesta in northwest Spain, this young DOP (2006) has a much longer tradition of cheese production than its DOP date might indicate. Two primary components give this cheese its distinct and recognizable flavor. First, milk from the Galician cows (Frison, Alpine Brown, and Rubia Gallega) is lightly pressed into pear-shaped molds; second, two weeks later the cheese is smoked using Birch wood (typical to this area). It is then stored for a minimum of 45 days. The smoke gives this cheese a woodsy and intense flavor, adding to the slightly acidic and already buttery taste. This cheese paired particularly well with the red wines (and, of course, was great with the whites).

Afuega’l Pitu: From the Asturias region in northern Spain comes of the most unique cheeses I have ever tasted. Afuega’l Pitu (a DOP since only 2008) is considered to be one of the oldest cheeses in Spain. Rumor has it that the cheese was used as a form of payment for taxes in the 18th century. Made from the unpasteurized milk of the Friesian and Asturiana de los Valles breeds, can be either soft or semi-hard as well as made with or without paprika. I found this cheese (soft and made with paprika) at a local Spanish deli and was instantly intrigued. The Aguega’l Pitu was soft and “spreadable” as it crumbled from the mold. Slightly acidic and very tangy and spicy, this is one of the driest cheeses I have ever tasted. Truly a unique experience, this cheese worked nicely with all of the wines.

Wine Pairing Recommendations:

The variety of flavors with these cow’s milk cheeses proved an intriguing opportunity when pairing with Spanish wines. I found that the wines below served to complement the aforementioned cheeses quite well. I would recommend any (or all) of them. (Check out Wine Searcher or your local retailer for more information on where to find them.)

2009 Laxas (Rias Baixas): {100% Albariño} A beautiful expression of the Albariño varietal, the 2009 Laxas has a light straw color with aromas of peach and citrus on the nose. To the taste, flavors of green apple and stone fruits complement this balanced and acidic wine. This wine was one of the best all-around pairs for the cheeses tasted.

2008 San Clodio (Ribeiro): {70% Treixadura, 9% Godello, 9%, Loureira, 7% Torrontes, 5% Albariño} Named for a Cistercian monastery in Galicia, this unique blend is a beautiful light golden color and exudes aromas of orange zest, honey, and stone fruit. On the palate, the San Clodio has complexity and minerality as well as flavors of peaches, nectarines, and mangos.

2009 Viña Tobia (Rioja): {80% Viura (Macabeo), 20% Malvasía} I am always intrigued by white wines from Rioja. This one delivers! In the glass, colors of pale yellow and light straw make way to a bouquet of flowers, honey, and citrus. On the palate, this full-bodied wine includes floral notes as well as those of honey, pear, and apple. This was the most versatile of all the wines tasted. A true taste treat!

2007 Abad Dom Bueno (Bierzo): {100% Mencia} Produced from 56-year old vines and aged in American and French oak barrels for five months this wine is a delicious expression of Mencia. Deep red in color with strong black fruit and mineral aromas, this medium-bodied, dry wine contains a nice array of fruit, oak and minerals on the tongue. The 2007 Abad Dom Bueno is elegant and complex with a long and spicy finish. This wine paired incredibly well with the spicy and smoky cheeses.

2009 Avaniel (Ribera del Duero): {100% Tempranillo} This extremely young wine from Ribera del Duero is produced from vines less than ten years old. Dark ruby-red in the glass with aromas of spice, blueberry, and blackberry, the 2009 Avaniel has a surprisingly smooth mouth feel. Flavors of black fruit and spice accompany this medium-bodied Tempranillo.

Where to find these and other cheeses:

Whole Foods Market – Stores nationwide
Dean & Deluca – NYC stores (ships nationwide)
Murray’s Cheese – NYC stores (ships nationwide)
La Tienda – Virginia store (ships nationwide)
The Spanish Table – West Coast (ships nationwide)
D’España – NYC store (ships nationwide)
La Española – LA store (ships nationwide)
Internationally: If you’re located outside of the USA and need help finding these cheeses, please leave a comment below and we’ll help source them for you.

Although not one’s first thought when it comes to Spanish cheese, I would highly recommend seeking out some (if not all) of these cheeses. The cow’s milk cheeses of Spain provide a varied and delicious taste treat and are increasing available in local supermarkets as well as Spanish food and wine retailers (above). If you are searching for something more than a traditional Manchego (more of that in the next article) then take the time to enjoy something truly out of the ordinary.

Part 1: Guide to Spanish Cheese
Part 2: Guide to Spanish Goat/Cabra Cheese
Part 3: Guide to Spanish Cow/Vaca Cheese
Part 4: Guide to Spanish Sheep/Oveja Cheese
Part 5: Guide to Spanish Mixed / Mixto Cheese

Enjoy!

Rick Fisher