Upon moving to Spain, I garnered a bizarre fascination with goats. Having seen a video on Myotonic goats, or fainting goats, born with quickfire response to perceived danger that, quite literally, freezes its muscles in the course of 10 seconds, I was hooked. In this particular domestic breed, the animal completes a few stiff hops before it topples to the ground, legs straight up in the air like a bronze statue on its back. It’s one of the funniest images I’ve ever experienced, but it also left a soft spot for their vulnerability. And maybe it was because of this bizarre jester-like behavior that my appreciation never waned, or maybe it was because of my perpetual inhalation of goat cheese, but whatever the reason, I wanted to merge my disconnected fascination with reality.
With our nifty little rental car available to us, we contacted our local cheese guru, Katherine McLaughlin, in an effort to track down a quality cheese house. Having lived in Catalunya for half a decade, sans a vehicle, we hadn’t had an opportunity to interview a cheese monger, as many live high up in the mountains. And when I say high, I’m referring to ear-popping altitudes. So it wasn’t a surprise when she suggested we visit Formatges Cuirols.
Formatges Cuirols is located in the town of La Nou de Berguedà, which is on the left bank of the Llobregat River and on the mountain of Sobrepuny. What’s interesting to note is that the mountain of Sobrepuny boasts of soaring approximately 1600 meters above sea-level, which gives this is wee little cheese house a magnificent view of the tree covered mountains.
Katherine had suggested that Formatges Curiols would provide us a very intimate and passionate understanding of cheese making. “Gabriella, Josep is a young passionate guy who makes great quality cheese. I’m sure he’ll provide you all the information you need, not to mention a close encounter with his goats,” she spouted quickly over the phone, and she couldn’t have been more accurate!
Josep Venturós comes off as a warm, gentle guy in his mid 30’s who has always acquired a deep fascination with making his own cheese. Living in a quaint and charming little house built by his grandfather, high in the Pre-Pyrenees Mountains, the estate is an homage to romance, rural living and natural cuisine.
“Originally my Dad had a few sheep for their milk, as well cattle for meat, but he sold off the sheep when he deemed it too much work. Years later, having completed courses in engineering and cheese making, I bought a few goats to try cheese making on my own.”
The the barn is located not 40 feet from their abode – complete with a cloth’s line drying the days white undergarments in the searing Spanish sun – and currently houses 100 goats. As to the 20 some odd cattle they own, while not nestling their wet noses against the wild flowers, allowing the wind to chime their massive bells, tarnished and weathered from time’s gentle touch in the vast mountain landscapes, they are kept in a more spacious barn on the other side of the property. On this particular day, we didn’t catch a glimpse of their broad backsides, but we did see many cattle upon our drive North that afternoon, some of which looked to be goat-like in their demeanor while propped, precariously on the corner of a mountain ledge.
“When making goat cheese, it’s important think of the goat first. You need to consider how clean the air is, the altitude, the vegetation, the weather, and of course, the race of the goat. All of these elements in unison affect the taste of the cheese; the cleaner the air and soil, the better vegetation for the goats. And as each race of goat is quite different, it’s essential to consider which are best suited for your style of cheese. Having started a few years ago with just 10 goats, I now have 100 Alpine and Murciano goats. The Alpine is hardy, easy to adapt to changing conditions, and tends to produce ample amounts of milk.”
Staring at Josep’s mutli-colored goats, in various shades of earth tones, you can’t help but think of the goldmine Josep fell into. Born into a family living in the quintessential “Sound of Music” landscape, complete with a culture dedicated to making artesanal products, it was almost predetermined that Josep would garner a passion for handcrafting goat cheese.
Goat cheese has been said to be one of the earliest man made dairy products, in part, due to the ease of production. To make goat cheese, you simply take the raw milk from a goat, allowing it to naturally curdle, and then draining and pressing the curds. You can also add an acid, such as vinegar or lemon, or rennet to the milk to kick-start the coagulation process. Sounds easy, doesn’t it? It is, but if you don’t have quality base ingredients to work with, such as naturally fed mountain goats, the end product may not taste as heavenly as you imagine.
Josep produces various styles of goat cheese, but our favorite was the El Curiol, a fresh curd cheese that has been cured for a whopping 20 days. Sitting regally on the table with a gleaming white rind and a chalky center that is matured from the inside out, the aroma is so intense that you feel like you’re literally next to a bale of hay, fresh grass, mildew and cream. Granted, these things literally were surrounding us, but the laboratory didn’t allow exterior aromas to penetrate; hence the cheese spoke for itself. In the mouth, it showed an incredible complexity of flavors, including a touch of lemon, fresh herbs and sweet milk. The texture is creamy, slightly nutty and perfectly vibrant; while the flavor was so fresh and expressive that when consuming a small piece, I had to psychically restrain myself from jumping over the table and consuming the entire 250g truncated pyramid. Producing approximately 20 El Curiol cheeses a day at 4 euros each in house, it’s a steal!
Equally, if not more incredible, was the ash covered El Curiol. With an earthy, honey and hay flavor, showing a touch more sweetness than its less volcanic brethren, it was like sucking on a smoky, sweet peace of perfectly curd cream.
Their El de l’Avia is a round, slightly harder cheese having been matured for approximately 5 months, the texture is slightly meatier, but the subtle, sweet interior was still present. A little nuttier on the palate, it’s a cheese to pair with cured meats, sausages and olives. Josep makes around a dozen per day and sells them at a mere 6 euros in house.
If you’re a dare devil cheese seeker then check out their El Noeta, a queso so intense that merely a teardrop sized sample will make your eyes water in pure delight. The cheese is macerated in olive oil and sweet wine and then whipped into a perfectly creamy consistency. Suggested as a spread for toast, it may be better paired with a touch of honey, whereby diluting its head popping strength! But don’t let the intensity frighten you. If you enjoy strong cheeses, you’ll adore this one!
Finding this cheese outside of Catalunya would be challenging, but if you’re in Barcelona, make sure to go to Formatgeria La Seu, where Katherine can expertly guide you through their cheeses.
Additionally, Josep is happy to accept visitors upon appointment. Please send him an email at the address provided below. Although, note to self, when you go through La Nou, keep going until you pass the main square and the buildings, tennis courts on your left, until you hit a dead end. Head left and go up the mountain. Keep climbing on dirt roads until you see the little sign at the top of this post saying “Curiols”. It can feel like you’ve left planet earth before you get to the top, but trust me, it’s worth the effort!
And if you just happen to be in Marshall Country, Tennessee this month, make sure to check out the “Goats Music and More Festival“.
08698 – La Nou
+34 617 43 83 28