Andalucia to Alentejo: Mission in the Sun
Following in the footsteps of an imaginary Maitre'd Fromage, we explore the sun-baked interiors of Spain and Portugal in search of handmade Cheese.
March 19, 2014
Tarifa is the closest harbor in Spain to Morocco, and is responsible for our word tariff, because pirates in the ancient ages used this proximity to exact sea-route taxes on continental traders.
The seedy pirate-town architecture still stands, although cropped against plenty of surf shops and trendy retailers. Today, Tarifa is a rather hip neo-Bohemian town. And surfboards are for sale everywhere. But where are the waves? An old unshaven Swede says otherwise. "The kite-surf and wind-surf capital of the world, yes, maybe, but small waves." Johann moved from Sweden to Marbella, a coastal area of endless high-rises to the east of here, but admits, "I was too drunk to drive home so this hotel is my second."
When I tell Johann I am Norwegian, he says, "we are enemies you know." I say, "Yes, I know." He says, "You Norwegians drink too much." He says this with the words slurred, and I say, "Why here?"
"I came to Marbella and Tarifa because it is primitive, you know? You buy a fish and it is not a fancy fish like in Stockholm. It is not delicate, but it is just caught and it is primitively prepared. I love the primitive preparation and the primitive womens. I love those Moroccan womens in their djebellas."
I tell him of my route with Jane, how we are collecting artisanal cheeses, and of Extremadura, the province north of here which has almost no value to the casual tourist, and plenty of value to anybody who loves agricultural landscapes, and cheese. I say, "you know that in Spain there are about thirty-five different types of sheep. And each of those produces a different type of milk."
He says, "Amazing. Primitive!"
And then, so you are some kind of connoisseurs,” he says this while waving his hand in the air, as if he were in a book club. I say no, not at all. We are just hungry travelers, on a carefree mission in the sun. “If you’re traveling on a budget,” I say, “forget restaurants, just go to the market, buy a bread, an apple or pear, and a hard cheese.” I tell him how this combination can make a fine travel companion.
Jane and I leave the next morning, ascending the coastal Bermeja mountains, until our lawnmower-car is putting along a road between wind-sharpened rocks, lichen and foggy meadows. When we descend toward the city of Ronda, we are in the heart of Andalucía.
Much of Andalucía is the sun-baked watershed of the Rio Guadalquivar Basin, the same river that Columbus and Magellan sailed from. It would appear in the dry-season a moonscape, although brighter, almost yellow. The rolling empty is punctuated by old farming estates, many of which are buildings of incredible beauty. Some have viewing towers, and even others are outlined in tiles or mosaics in the colors of ochre, blue and brick red.
The interior of Andalucía is solely responsible for all the fantastical images we have of Spain, and in spite of this, much of the small roads of this interior are almost unknown to the outside world. The Spaghetti Westerns were filmed here, because this desert-like landscape resembles our imagination of New Mexico and Arizona two hundred years ago. And the prickly-pear cactuses help that image. They were brought back on Columbus’ ships, and felt at home.
We read from our imaginary book about traveling in pursuit of artisanal cheese. Montclair, our make-believe expert on all matters of cheese travel, was adamant about the value of history to appreciating cheese. He mentioned Ronda as ‘one of the last beacons of the Muslim world in Europe.’
Jane and I are crossing through the western Andalucian interior the slow way, taking our time and avoiding the larger cities. Our rented car is shorter than a mini, nearly as ugly as a Citron, and sounds like a vacuum cleaner at high speeds.
Ronda is a city on a limestone bulwark. A castle of steep rock. In the middle ages, as the Christians advanced on the Moorish land, Ronda was almost the last to fall.
“Without this age of Moors being pushed back by Christians, we would not have the finest cheeses of Southern Spain,” Montclair writes.
“Arabs and Berbers conquered and settled in the South of what we call Spain, bringing with them their sheep and goats, their Middle-Eastern knowledge of olive groves and agriculture, adding to a tradition of farming already enhanced by the Romans long before.”
“The Arabs created a caliphate in Cordoba, to the east of here, and ruled most of the Iberian Peninsula for seven-hundred year. Until the first millenium, this Muslim-Arab world prospered, provided tolerance to the Jews and Christians who remained, and built a kingdom ripe with art, philosophy, poetry and exquisite architecture.”
Overnighting on a chain of small towns, we eventually make our way to the isolated Sierra de Aracena. All these roads, and Jane seems to humor herself by giving commentary on the world outside. Of two pigs copulating, she mumbles ‘pig porno’, of sheep grazing, ‘dirty!’ and of a goat with a long beard, ‘Gandalf’
We rest for the night in the small town of Aracena, high up enough to be cooler than the rest of Andalucía. It is white-washed, and upon its highest hill is an old Roman ruins, and a Catholic church in its shadow.
Everybody, it would seem, eats the cured hams from these mountains. A breed of black-hooved and black-skinned hogs are raised in these mountains, and feed solely on the plentiful acorns which sometimes seem to carpet the entire landscape. They are free-range hogs – imagine that, and seem almost happy.
The ham, called Jamón Iberico, is salt-cured, and dried in the stiff mountain air. Almost every town features a Jamóneria, which is basically a storefront featuring hundreds of pig-legs hanging from the air. Andalucían Jamón has a dry, nutty (the acorns) flavor; and when cut properly shows off its brilliant marbled texture. Most cured ham experts agree the world’s best come from these mountains – some brands require a waiting list of years. It’s an old process, refined and unable to be duplicated by technology, or in any other region on account of the climate and flora. Like artisanal cheeses, the finished product is a complex relationship between plant, animal and man. Like the best cheeses of Spain, the best Jamon requires a skillful shepherd, constantly caring for his flock.
In Andalucía , this jamon is often paired with cheese. They are both simple foods, as is most of Spanish cuisine, and celebrated for their many levels of complexity. The way some people sniff at their glass of red wines, the Andalucíans revel in the complexity of their small dishes of simple foods.
We walk up and down the narrow streets of Aracena at night, talking about friends back home. When we pause to photograph an alley, an old woman peers at us from her doorway.
To ensure her that these foreigners are not insidious and evil, we say hello, attempting to prompt conversation in our best Spanish. But she doesn't answer, so we repeat. She continues her glare, and then I remember that she endured World War II, and Franco. She sees no need for anything other than suspicion.
Suspicion will become a trend with these old ladies throughout Southern Iberia. By the time we reach Portugal I will have developed a sort of stereotype of them as old bitter hags. I attempt to confine this as much as possible, and promise myself to extend greetings to every old woman I meet for the duration.
We sit down for tapas at an old cafe. A plate of Jamón, some coffee, olives, bread, two beers. We tip our glasses. We have been eating this way - tapas, finger foods, for a week now. Jane begins mentioning her mother's cooking. She mentions her desire for fruit. She describes in detail a Korean soup. She reminds me of that lunch dish back home – oh, that fresh cilantro.
The next day we head for Badajoz through the route of the Sierra de Huelvas, also riddled with black pigs grazing under magnificent oaks. We read more from Montclair.
Over time, this ideal kingdom of Andalucia began to crumble upon itself - Arabs killing Arabs; a bloating of the system, assasination, trickery, rivalries. Cordoba would fall, but the independent states under that caliphate - the taifas - remained, although hardly unified. This made Al-Andalus weaker by the decade. And soon, the Christians of the north would pounce on their first target - the northern taifa of Toledo, just south of today's Madrid. For the next four-hundred years, the Christians slowly pushed this Arab-Muslim world back, and across the Mediterranean.”
;But as the Muslims left a legacy of architecture and philosophy in the cities, they left their domesticated animals in the mountains and plains of the south. Extremadura was the frontier between the Christians and Muslims, a boundary wasteland. Today, Extremadura is largely empty plains of rust dirt, planted fields and straggly thistles. Like Madrid and Toledo, it's part of that risen Meseta, a plateau hundreds of miles long. A place for the sheep to graze.”
The sheep that make up our story of cheese from Extremadura come from the Middle East. Like dogs, sheep come from an other animal. But unlike dogs, whose ancestral Indian wolf is extinct, the sheep's wild ancestors still roam the old world. They are called Mouflon, and they approximate a big hairy beast in a sheep's body. Mouflon exist today in two subspecies. One in Central Iran and the other in the highlands of Corsica and Sicily.
“By the year 6,000 B.C.,” he writes, “the sheep was invaluable to the way of life for the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern peoples. By the time of the writing of the Book of Genesis, Middle Easterners were more than just dabbling with the genetic lineages of their domesticated animals. Even in this early book there is ample evidence that Middle Easterners were carefully bettering their animals’ stock. “I will pass through all thy flock to day, removing from thence all the speckled and spotted cattle, and all the brown cattle among the sheep, and the spotted and speckled among the goats…” (Genesis 30:32)”
“When the Christians finally regained Iberia, they took these Middle-Eastern sheep that had gone astray in Extremadura and cared for their lineage.
The lineage became known as the Merino sheep - today yet almost a mascot for Spain. The sheep were bred for the finest wool, and Extremadura became a kind of Merino wool factory Now those Merino sheep are almost exclusively used for the production of Extremadura’s best cheese.”
We arrive in Badajoz, one of the old Moorish taifas, and it's Columbus Day, so nobody is working and most are asleep. If they're not working, they're toasting Columbus with the pitcher. It's eleven in the morning.
Badajoz is worn; ornamented in arches and old quarters but without the passion for tidiness and antiquarianism that makes small-town Spain glow. I thought again about that American who said, 'they have more culture over there' and I seemed to confirm my belief that culture is more than old buildings. It’s how a people care for their old buildings.
At its heart lie a number of cafes, and we find a small table in a dim, crowded tavern. We ask for the lomo - another cut of cured ham, and an order of Queso de la Serena. The second cheese of our journey.
Queso de la serena - cheese of the mountains - is made of Merino sheep’s milk, and goes through an unusual coagulation process. Its rennet is from a local thistle plant. Made by a single family's sheep in the high mountains just east of here. Its unique flavor is a combination of that thistle taste and the rich milk of the Merino sheep. The goat cheese we ate in Morocco nearly approximated the first cheeses ever made; little more than sun-curdled skimmed milk. The skimmed milk gets churned, then boiled. The result is as fresh and tasteless as plain yogurt.
But this cheese has undergone the rennet process – the standard which makes most cheese taste like cheese, of coagulating the curds - the solid parts of milk. In most cases, this process uses enzymes from the stomach of young mammals. In the case of Queso de la Serena, the thistle plant acts as the coagulant.
The Serena cheese is exquisite; sharp, almost spicy, and melted on bread like a brie. Paired with the lomo and beer, it is a perfect meal.
We listen to a family sitting next to us in this dim tavern, celebrating Columbus. This Spanish - the original Spanish, is so different from the Spanish we know in Los Angeles, that it sounds...well, foreign.
I tell Jane about our token Mexican friend, Alvin, and his stories about Spain. He once showed me a painting on his wall; that of a Moorish pirate ship attacking a Spanish merchant ship, probably in the Strait of Gibraltar between Tarifa and Tangier. He said, "to me this represents my Mexican-ness, because our Spanish blood is always in conflict with our native blood.' Of the Spaniards he told me a story. "They have a lisp." He said the Spaniards didn't always have such a lisp, but they had a King who was both retarded and homosexual. Out of respect for their King, who had a retarded lisp, all the Spanish Castillians bowed and changed their very tone, in honor of the King.
The story, he says, is true. His wife's professor told her.
The Spanish, returning the favor, champ their teeth and spit out their words when they play Mexican.
It's been a week since our last cheese in Morocco, but the third is only about fifty miles away. We drive to the state capital of Extremedura, a bustling city called Caceres that seems to rise up suddenly from the farmlands.
Caceres is a bustling agricultural city, more modern than Badajoz, but with an old heart - a world heritage site - and packed with people and pigeons. We find a tapas bar and order a drink, and a handful of dishes. A greasy spoon. Bewildered by our heavy meals, we find the small selection of ‘ensaladas’ at the bottom of the tapas menu. Salads, perfect. We order both dishes. When the waiter pushes these dishes at us, we peer down at pieces of gray animal fat in a soupy brown liquid. Jane pokes at the dishes with a toothpick and begins verbalizing her dreams of avocados and her mother’s cooking.
The local cheese store was closed, so we found a Jamóneria and the third cheese of our itinerary. It's called Queso Ibores; its crimson colored rind is washed in paprika.
This cheese is in many ways like this city. The heart of Caceres was one of the first Spanish entities to be granted world heritage status by the United Nations. The status is little more than that; it's like a stamp from the world saying - this is an important part of humanity, protect it. Caceres is protected because of its unique blend of Roman, Islamic, Gothic and Renaissance elements.
Queso Ibores is also protected by the Spanish Government. Many European countries try to protect their old food cultures - their wines and cheeses for example - through assigning them a privileged status.
The queso ibores has that chalky consistency of parmesan, it is in fact used grated. It tastes, however, like a hard, tangy manchego, with more of that animal taste coming through. Jane calls this the 'animal afterbite.' We give up on it after a few bites, and cross into Portugal.
Four youngsters approach me on a bridge in Covilhã. One fellow is blonde and wears a goatee. Another is lanky. The third a dwarf, and the fourth is olive-skinned and seems the leader of the pack.
I ask them if they enjoy living in Covilhã, a lively mountain town in Northern Portugal, near the border with Spain. “We are not from here,” the leader says in perfect English. “We are from the mountains.” And he points to the Serra de Estrella range, upon which Covilhã is built at the foothills.
I tell them that Jane and I are headed for those mountains tomorrow. These boys, maybe not quite eighteen, wear hand-tailored clothes. They are dirty kids, and you can see a mother’s stitching in their jackets and white shirts. Save for the blonde boys’ orange parka, their clothing could have been from the early twentieth century. They are like Portugal itself, comfortable and weathered and not in the least bit self-conscious.
“So what do you guys do up there in the mountains?” I ask.
“It’s very nice,” the leader says. “We like to climb around on the rocks.”
“So are your parents farmers?” I ask. “My father is a sheep herder,” the dwarf says. The others also nod their heads.
“For the cheese?” I ask.
“Yes, the cheese!” the dwarf says. I ask where to find the best.
A small town about two hours that way, they say. The lanky boy points up the mountain.
I ask what they do: “We are studying,” the leader says.
“Well you are not exactly studying,” the dwarf quips.
“Working.” The leader changes his story, “I’m in advertising,” he says.
He dispatches letters,” the dwarf says. “He goes to different buildings and leaves advertising notes behind.
The next morning, Jane and I leave Covilhã and drive through a thick fog up into the mountains. We pass a closed ski-resort, and later along steep grades, we see a number of pinnacled rocks through the soupy fog.
Little happens in this range except for shepherding. Many of the shepherd huts are made of stone and thatch. Our goal is the small settlement the boys mentioned. It lies in a wet, green valley deep in the mountains, and is known for only one thing: Queijo Serra da Estrela. One of the world’s most famous cheeses, serra cheese is also Portugal’s most renowned.
Tradition and circumstance means you fork down the cash to buy the whole cheese barrel in the afternoon before your guests arrive. Let it sit at room temperature, cut the top of the rind so you have a natural bowl. A good serra cheese is creamy. You dip from the bowl. Traditionally, this cheese was made by the wife of the Shepherder in small mountain cottages. Today, the product's demand outmatches its supply. Sheep produce little milk, and so the majority of these Bordaleira sheep produce strictly for the cheese industry.
When we arrive in Sandomil, the rain relents to a drizzle and the settlement reveals itself to be entirely bent on a culture of cheese. Every storefront carries some variation of serra cheese, as well as their own household experiments in goat cheeses and Portuguese presunto cured hams.
At a random store (which also sells leather goods and stuffed rabbits), we score an eighth from the more aged, and piquant version of Serra cheese. More portable for the road to Evora.
Jane slices the aged serra as we roll down the mountain. It has a subtle bite, and goes well with the stiff Portuguese bread we bought at the border.
Like its related sheeps cheeses across the border, serra uses no cow-stomach enzymes to rennetize the cheese. Rather, the sheep's milk is coagulated with local thistles after the milk runs through sheeps wool. A plant that can act as a coagulant for cheese is extremely rare in nature, and nobody knows exactly why it does what it does. Regardless, the end product is sharp and almost spicy.
In Southern Europe, cheese is consumed slowly and in tiny amounts, and the social norm is to treat the cheese like how a good bottle of wine is consumed - with genuflection.
Nothing in all of Iberia compares to the road that connects Covilhã to Evora, especially with one hand on the wheel and the other on a cheese that took us forty eight hours just to find.
A hotel man had warned us not to take this road, because of its length. “It’ll take you all day,” he says. “Better to take the coast.” But we are in no hurry.
The benefits of this road are exquisite: it approximates a savannah: dry and monotone golden-brown. Cork oaks and granite stand widely spaced.
This Alentejo region is Portugal's hottest. Weather which tops out at over a hundred and ten degrees in the summer season help to keep this third of Portugal thinly populated.
My initial interest in artisanal cheese came from flying coach. I always considered first class a waste of resources, if not an outright commitment to surround yourself with bores. A good coach traveler could stash a fine wine, some bread and a good cheese, and have the best meal in the air. A luxury that would be uncomfortable in the hands-on atmosphere of first class. The cost of first class, I always thought, even to a couple who grossed five-hundred thousand US a year, was an inneficient use of resources. I wanted to believe that you could travel in comfort and luxury even on old trains and metro busses or even by living out the back of your car.
As life changed and that meant more travel, I became more and more interested in travel food: how to pack and eat both cost effective and well when good food on the road is scarce or overpriced.
I found there were a number of excellent hard cheeses that stayed well in a backpack for days. A local supplier in Los Angeles offered me an aged gouda, that, at eighteen months of preservation, was impervious to temperature and time. Trying to expand my travel cheese pallette, I learned how the best were always the small batches that were hard to come by, and that there was a whole world of unique farmhouse cheeses.
I had been introduced to small town cheeses first in Aix-les-Bahns, fifteen years ago at the summer home of a family filled with astronomers and architects. Whatever those French cheeses were, I'll never know. I remember only that at the end of a long hike to the top of a mountain peak, a meal of pears, cheese and bread, was one of the best I ever had.
Historical cheese travel writer St. Deuberex Montclair wrote that he believed this sort of peasant food was superior to the big city cuisine fashions of Europe at the turn of the century, because small town peasant families always kept food at the center of their social lives. Were he to be alive today, he would certainly note that the entire world's best cuisines are always steeped in a rich peasant culture. From country Italian to Thai to French, no matter where you are, its always about basic ingredients and slow processes. Evora is significant in the history of cheese because it is part of an ancient network of towns that were taught cheesemaking out of necessity to supply the travelers of the time: the Roman Army.
Two-thousand years ago, Evora was an outpost at the western edge of the Roman empire.
Portugal's cuisine is a dual product of its going about the world and colonizing distant backwaters and also being colonized and conquered itself.
While spices of every ilk represent the cultural leftovers of Portugal's empire, cheese represents the leftovers of the Roman Empire's expansion into Iberia. Like me, the Romans were also keen on the idea of travel food. Their marching armies needed food that could keep well over a variety of terrain and temperatures. Cheese became the fuel source of the Roman Army, and they brought all their cheesemaking technology along with them. As they conquered and colonized, they brought their techniques to each new city and town. And thus a network of protein and calcium providers expanded out from Rome and became cheddar and blue cheese and triple-creme.
Although cheese was probably first popularized in the Middle East, it was the Romans who spread it across Europe, and thus created a bloom of new cheese types across a subcontinent.
The Romans built a sturdy wall around Evora, and so the entire center of town is enclosed even today.
Although the French and British argue about where the best cheeses come from, it was the Romans – and therefore Italy - who fueled Europe with so many of the staple varieties.
Evora is a walled city on a hill; whitewashed and flourished with color. The Portuguese consider it their country’s most comfortable place to live. It is a smaller city, surrounded by fields of grain.
We drive down a narrow alley and into Evora’s main plaza, which sounds great until everybody is giving you that you fucking idiot look. You know that one? People are drinking their coffee under umbrellas, and giving us stares. The man who approaches our car, he wears a dark hat and a dark suit. He says in Portuguese that we have driven into the town square, and that we should really try to get our car out of here as quickly as possible.
It’s cool that this old man is willing to help direct us. Little did he know that Jane told me, two times, that I was going down the wrong street.
Really though, Evora, like any other old Southern European town, is constricted by its oldness. Like all old cities built haphazardly over a thousand years or more, Evora is a driver's nightmare. A maze of old restaurants and apartment buildings and one way streets that seem to dead-end nearly as quickly as they begin. For walkers, it is a dream, and most probably one of Europe's most beautiful cities. Its alleys are bright white and sometimes the tiny courtyards feature an orange tree or a lime tree hanging their botanical color out into the white alley.
Somewhere in the Evora maze, we find a quiet restaurant in a quiet alley and ask if perhaps they carry Evora cheese.
Absolutely, please have a seat.
For all our awful meals from Morocco to Portugal, this restaurant is a saving grace. For every nasty tapas slap-to in Spain, and for all the grease in Gibraltar, this restaurant represents honest Iberian cooking.
Waiter recommends I try the grilled black-footed pig. He serves us a white port from the Douro Valley with our Evora cheese. And a marinated squid, with bread and chickpeas.
The Evora cheese is soft, mild, and as Jane says, 'pillowy.' All it takes is a small bite to enjoy.
Setubal is a mazelike city, even more gnarled and twisty than Evora. It hugs the coast of the Setubal Peninsula, facing south. Immediately west of the city, the mountain road rises high above the ocean.
It is a chapparal-like landscape, and at one point, we pass a whitewashed monastery clinging to the scrub. This old Franciscan monastery faces the ocean. We are looking for the Azeitão region, where Azeitão cheese is produced.
In Setubal, we buy our sixth cheese at a local market near the Atlantic coast. But we quickly realize it is a fake. It may be labeled Queijo de Azeitão, but it tastes like butter. Portugal's ability to protect its authentic traditional foods lags behind the rest of Western Europe. To find the real thing, you need to make sure its labeled DOP, which is similar to France's AOC label of authentication.
In the morning, I walk down a very old street in an old part of town. The apartments are small, and as far as I can tell, could each be at least five hundred years old.
When we find an authentic Azeitão, we timidly taste our last cheese. The cheese Montclair noted as 'distinctly Portuguese.' Azeitão is a raw sheep's milk cheese produced in the coastal hills beyond the monastery. It is an excellent piquant soft cheese. But also two weeks of eating heavy foods on the road have taken a toll. Jane dreams of crisp American lettuce, grilled chicken, that sort of thing. Cheese is healthy only in small quantities. The Portuguese eat it every day, but not as part of a dish. The Portuguese eat their cheese almost strictly as a single unit.
Any amount of heavy food only works with an active lifestyle, and where many Europeans are cut from their long daily walks, the Portuguese in these parts tend to round out early.
Our waitress in Setubal is younger than us, but already rounding out into the shape of an old lady. In the Portuguese interior, as in Spain, old couples take evening walks into the fields. You see every sunset dozens of well-dressed walkers holding hands, deep in conversation.
It seems the Portuguese cuisine favors the small rural towns, where the lifestyle is still active and traditional. After sixteen days of a diet of cheese, we're feeling like those urban Portuguese. It's time for some banana shakes and big American salads. But Jane's already telling me she wants to try the cheese in this country, and that country. She's pointing at the map and saying, "do they make cheese there?"