Enric Canut is a Catalan cheese guru, co-founder of the dairy Tros de Sort and a tireless ambassador for Spain’s cheeses abroad. We met up last fall at the tiny artisan market in Borredà in the foothills of the Pyrenees. Cheese, which has always been made here in Spain’s distinctive northeastern province, is on the move in Catalunya, says Canut. It’s not a wholly new development, but until now the traditional goat and sheep’s milk varieties were always a sideline to meat production and made on a small scale, often for home consumption.
But then in the 1980s, a generation of young escapees from the city in search of a better quality of life bought small holdings in remote country areas. They were known as neo-rurales – or hippies, says Canut with a smile. Small-scale cheese making was perfect for these newcomers to the country because it required little capital and provided instant cash flow.
One of the earliest neo-rurales was Toni Chueca of Formatge Bauma in Borredà, home of the annual Borredà market. “When we came up here in the 1980s, there was very little cheese made and it was mainly for use in the home,” he says. Chueca and a band of like-minded friends founded ACREFA, Catalunya’s association for artisan cheese makers. Nowadays he makes several goat’s milk varieties, including the semi-hard Garrotxa and the fragrant, square, ashed Carrat.
A second, more recent development identified by Canut is the farmer-turned-cheese-maker. Martí Huguet of Mas Alba, the family’s 18th-century farmhouse in Empordà, which nowadays doubles up as a rural B&B, is a case in point. Three years ago, he realized that the kind of small-scale mixed farming that his family had practiced for generations was no longer economically viable. They already had a herd of Granadina goats they raised for meat. When the price of meat barely covered costs, cheese seemed an obvious way to go.
With the help of Internet sites that give instructions on how to make cheese, and input and encouragement from Katherine McLoughlin of Barcelona’s famous cheese store Formatgeria La Seu, Martí converted the garage into a dairy. His products — Petit’Ot, El Terrós, El Cremós and El Uff! are available in specialty shops and restaurants throughout the neighborhood.
Huguet’s close neighbor Manel Marce at Mas Marce makes sheep’s milk cheeses. Members of his family have been shepherds for seven generations. Three years ago, Marcé turned to cheese making, using milk from his herd of Ripollesa, a breed once typical of Catalunya but until recently in danger of dying out. All of Manel’s cheeses (such as Llanut, wrapped in a soft cloud of sterilized fleece) are made with thistle rennet, from the stamens of the beautiful, mauve cardoon plant which grows on the farm.
Professionals turned cheese-makers
The third type of Catalunya cheese-maker, according to Canut, is the university-educated professional who turns to cheese-making after a career in business or the civil service. “I worked for years in the agriculture department of the Catalunya region,” says Salvador Maura of Mas d’Eroles in Adrall, high in the Catalan Pyrenees, “and I got to meet plenty of cheese-making folks. I told myself, ‘When I grow up, I’m going to be a cheese-maker.’ ”
At 39, he did just that. Today, with the help of Judit, his formidable jefa de producción (head of production) and Ester (part-time cheese-maker and district midwife), he makes a dozen different varieties from cow and sheep’s milk, cheese which can be found in top local restaurants and specialty shops in Spain and the U.S.
It’s an exciting time for cheese in Catalunya, confirms Canut, whose dairy produces a celebrated bloomy-rind soft cheese called Tou dels Til.lers. Many of these beauties never leave the country and can only be sampled at the farm gate or in specialty shops in Barcelona and Madrid. But an intrepid few reach the export market – Tou dels Til.lers can be found at La Fromagerie in London, while Chueca’s plump little Garrotxa and ashed Carrat are stocked by Brindisa in London’s Borough Market and Murrays in New York City. Maura’s Ermesenda and Serrat can be found at Forever Cheese.
Zester Daily contribuor Sue Style lives in Alsace, close to the border of Baden, Germany. She’s the author of nine books on subjects ranging from Mexican food to the food and wines of Alsace and Switzerland. Her most recent, published in October, 2011, is Cheese: Slices of Swiss Culture.
Top photo: Carrat cheese from Formatge Bauma. Credit: Sue Style
Slideshow credit: Sue Style