Silent, upon a peak in Darien - On first looking into Brindisa's Spanish cheeses.
A few weeks ago I came up with a new idea for a tasting. The idea was to pair Continental cheeses with British craft beers in a spirit of international understanding, fellowship and cooperation. It was called Never Mind the Brexit, a title suggested by my friend Jen Ferguson, co-owner of Hop, Burns and Black, a shop that sells, and I never tire of saying this, beer, hot sauce and records. They also collude with me in hosting and delivering increasingly provocatively titled cheese and beer tastings. As much as this was a somewhat exasperated response to a year of unpleasantness and uncertainty, it was also a great opportunity to expand my cheese horizons, particularly southward into Spain.
If you are in London and you are looking for Spanish cheese, the place to go is Brindisa. They have a shop in Borough Market which has been open since 1998 and was one of the first retail businesses to open at Borough Market. So that is where I went. Now, I’m sure you are expecting to hear that I went there in an open minded spirit of exploration, ready to be guided through the world of Spanish cheese by one of their expert cheesemongers. Actually not in the slightest, I already knew what I wanted for this tasting, a blue cheese called Cabrales, made in the Picos de Europa mountains of Northern Spain.
Cabrales is a cheese that might politely be described as ‘characterful’. You could also describe it as ‘gnarly’, ‘eye-watering’ ‘absurdly strong’ or in the words of Jean Claude Ribaut, a French cheese-writer, ‘as rough and ready as the lives of the peasants of the region.’ It actually breaks one of my rules for good cheese which is that all the flavours should be in balance. In Cabrales, the mouth searing peppery intensity of the blue dominates all the other flavours, and that’s ok. It’s more than ok, it’s fantastic, hilarious, thrilling, if slightly painful.
It looks like this:
The Cabrales from Brindisa is made by an Asturian cheese maker called Pepe Bada (I secretly think of him as Pepe Badass now). It’s an eminently artisanal product, traditional, small scale, hands-on. It really is an excellent cheese, the bouquet is floral, and there is a sweetness and depth to the flavour that rewards those who can push past the initial burn. I chose it because I wanted a big finish for the tasting, and, paired with Elusive Brewing's 2Up, an 8.5% barley wine, it certainly was. I also chose it because I LOVE IT, like you love a difficult, overbearing but unfailingly fascinating and uncompromising friend.
You should also know that at the end of the tasting we had a non-binding advisory vote on which was everybody’s favourite cheese and beer pairing, and Cabrales and 2Up took first place with 52% of the votes.
The thing is, aside from Cabrales and some indifferent supermarket Manchego, I have been shamefully ignorant about Spanish cheese. Thankfully when I went into Brindisa’s Borough Market shop Stuart Green happened to be on the counter. Stuart is a cheese monger and affineur - a person who ripens cheese, there is no English word for this as yet. Stuart used to work at Neal’s Yard Dairy as I once did, so we gave each other the secret sign of cheesemonger recognition and had a jolly good chat.
A few days later I went over to Brindisa’s maturing rooms in their massive store in Balham to see what they’re getting up to and try some cheese. It’s an impressive operation. You have to sign yourself in and swear mickle oaths of cleanliness three times as you penetrate further into the depths of the store. They have a conventional cold room to store the bulk of their cheese, which is very cold indeed, but the real gem is the room for maturing semi-soft cheeses. The walls are made of a terracotta tile from Spain that holds moisture and the room feels just right, you can feel the moist atmosphere on your cheek and if you are a recovering affineur like me, you fancy you can hear the cheeses sighing with happiness in this perfect environment. There is also a familiar and much loved smell, a mixture of a sour-milk tang with the earthiness of mould and the slight funk of washed rinds. For me this is like coming home.
Stuart and I squeezed and stroked a few cheeses, discussing the speed and progress of their ripening and talked about the past and current state of Spanish cheese making. Like France and Italy, Spain has managed to hold on to much of their cheesemaking tradition where Britain sadly lost so much. Interestingly there also seems to be a strong current of innovation and development leading to new cheeses or new takes on old methods. There is so much regional variation in styles of cheese that I feel bewildered and excited - there are going to be enough cheeses to discover in Spain to keep me occupied for a long time.
Of the cheeses we tried two really stood out. One is Mahon, a semi-soft cow’s milk cheese from the island of Menorca. They are square cheeses weighing around 3 kilos and are a deep pinkish red in colour. Seeing that I assumed they were washed rinds, like the French Epoisses or Munster, but no, they are rubbed in oil and paprika as part of their maturation. I’ve never seen this before. The one we tasted was still quite young, giving, buttery, a little sweet. Well nice, which is a technical term we cheesemongers like to use.
Here is a lovely looking Mahon. The pattern on the top is the impression of the cloth that the cheese drains in.
I also tried an aged Manchego called 1605 and had one of those cheddar moments where you realise that you’ve only ever been exposed to poor examples of a fantastic cheese. Crumbly and moist at the same time, like a firmer version of Lancashire, buttery, with some caramel notes, a little hay and pepper. This is a fantastic cheese. And, if you are feeling personly, you can buy a whole one! Invite me round if you do.
Stuart told me some great stories about the cheese makers that supply Brindisa, highlights included Spanish grandees, the CIA and the possible involvement of Hapsburgs. If you want to hear more of that you’ll have to come to one of my tastings, at which there is about to be a whole lot more Spanish cheese. And of course you can go and buy some cheese from Brindisa, who also have a shop in Balham. Their ham is rather nice too.
It is not too late to book a delicious and fulfilling Christmas tasting at your office, or just for you, your friends and family. Get in touch here.