Spanish Blue Info

Don’t like blue cheese? You just haven’t tasted the right one yet!

This blue cheese is made in a style from the mountains of northern Spain. It comes from the province of Cantabria and is named today as Picon Bejes-Tresviso (in reference to the two villages of Bejes and Tresviso, whose blue cheeses are so similar as to be indistinguishable, at least to the scrutiny of European regulators) It is related to other, similar cheeses from the neighboring provinces of Asturias and Leon; Cabrales and Valdeon respectively.

All of these cheeses have been made for centuries and are what I would call primitives since they were made long before the science of cheesemaking was known. These methods grew out of the necessity of preserving the milk’s nutrition, all with much less than modern equipment. The knowledge of making these cheeses came from the intuition and ambition of the folks who settled here, evolving and multiplying over generations.

While industrialization and regulation have largely shifted production off the farms and into the higher production producers, these blue cheeses are still made in the kitchens of Northern Spain as they have been for centuries. (This is detailed further in the history section.) The cheese in this guideline is patterned after all of these originals, but makes departures where practical. For instance, in the traditional recipes cows milk would often have additions of goat and sheep’s milk from family herds. Here we’ll stick to 100% cow’s milk, following the spirit of the original practice, and using what’s most at hand.

Traditionally no culture was added except what came with the milk and no blue was added since they relied on natural molds from the caves. Neither were the cheeses pierced like most of the blues today. They simply took what nature had to offer.

Similar to a Washed Rind

The Blue Cheeses of Northern Spain, traditionally aged in high mountain caves and wrapped in sycamore leaves, are known for their strong flavor and character. In fact, they’re much stronger than the other blue cheeses I have included in my guidelines to date! They relate more to the Gorgonzola Picante that I have written of previously, yet still stand distinct.

Much like a washed rind, this cheese will typically develop a red-orange rind due to its high moisture and the presence of yeast and bacteria. It tends to show interior veins as well as larger holes (and not by accident, as you will see), with a blue-green mold throughout. The cheese body becomes quite soft with the aging, which can extend 3-5 months. The longer it is aged, the stronger it becomes.

There are several factors that make this cheese so distinctive:

  • The milk starts at a lower temperature than most other cheeses
  • Lower amount of culture yields a longer, slower acid development
  • After coagulation begins, the curd is allowed a long firming period
  • The curd is only stirred briefly post cut, and receives no additional cooking
  • The curd undergoes a short draining once removed from pot to firm the surface
  • No press weight is used
  • A long 24 hour wait occurs before salts are added to slow the development of acid

The History of A Spanish Blue Cheese

The first written records of this cheese being made were found from the 14th century writings describing these mountain communities making their primitive cheeses. The high peaks of these rugged mountains are located in Cantabria, near the Picos de Europa National Park

This community where the cheeses were produced was based around the small villages of Bejes and Trevisio, hence the current name of the cheese. Originally they had their own designation but today they are listed in the Euro registry as one for Picón Bejes-Tresviso cheese. The pics above are of the small village of Tresviso

Historically, farms would have a large copper bucket to which they would add their milk and rennet. Cheesemaking was considered a woman’s domain, and farmwives would gauge the temperature and coagulation of the milk with a simple dipped finger. They let their curds dry under a cloth on the windowsill in the cool mountain air, in batches of up to 10 kilos at a time. No culture was added to the raw milk, and neither was blue, since they relied on the natural molds of the caves, where cheeses wrapped in sycamore leaves would be carried to age between 500 and 2,000 meters above sea level. Not all of this cheese would fully bloom with blue mold, since it was not pierced for aeration as we do today. These OG Artisan Cheese Makers simply took what nature had to offer.

Cheese making was very important, especially during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). In a time of scarcity and hunger, everyone in the village was able to milk their cows and make cheese; feeding themselves and selling to other regions.

1987 brought the introduction of Designation of Origins, an EU measure meant to protect Europe’s myriad local cheesemaking traditions by defining how and where a particular traditional cheese could be made. This would prevent, say, a large company from making a knockoff version of a traditional cheese, flooding the market and wiping out the practices of an entire village like Tresviso.

This worked, to a degree. For a counterexample, the US does not recognize or enforce Designation of Origins, and as a result most Americans have never tasted real brie! But, as regularly occurs, the benefits of regulation came with pitfalls.

Before 1987, making cheese could all be done in the kitchen. With the Designation of Origins, which by necessity maintained standards for international commerce, suddenly there were new standards of hygiene and procedure, even architecture, that farmhouse cheesemakers struggled to meet.

Today much of the cheese is made in larger commercial facilities. The cheese can no longer be aged wrapped in sycamore leaves. Fortunately, some of the small farms still do follow the traditional way, keeping these practices alive, but they are not allowed to sell under the official, Euro registered name.