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Cheese has a very long, storied past in Catalonia, as we wrote in the previous parts of this series. But what do the present and future of Catalan cheesemaking look like? The 21st century has seen cheesemaking flourish dramatically in Catalonia, thanks to increasing interest in and appreciation of culinary traditions and trends worldwide, not to mention the financial crisis of 2008, which led many people to make career changes or to take up a more DIY ethos. All of this, combined with that old Catalan inclination toward modern design and creativity, has made for a heady mix.

The new generation of cheesemakers comes from a wide range of professional backgrounds; many are college-educated and well-traveled, and accordingly, they have specific aesthetic, gastronomic and nutritional criteria. These artisans are open to constant evolution, internationally influenced, yet also grounded in local traditions and interested in improving the national market with new cheeses using organic, raw milk from animals pastured in the mountains and ultramodern technology for the best quality control.

The expert guiding us through this whirlwind tour of Catalan cheese history is Eva Vila, from La Teca de Vila Viniteca, a gourmet food shop/bar in El Born, which ages and sells more than 400 international and around 100 Catalan cheeses. Vila is one of the most important cheese specialists in Spain, and her influence on the domestic cheese market and production cannot be overstated.

In Part 2 of our series, Vila introduced us to Eulàlia Torras and her 1980s creation, the goat’s milk cheese Serrat Gros. In 2006 Torras retired and sold her farm, Can Codina, to the couple Raül Alcaraz and Mercè Lagrava, two Barcelonans who left city life for goats, mountains and milk buckets. They brought Serrat Gros and other Can Codina products even more renown, landing them on the menus of Michelin-starred restaurants, such as those of Carme Ruscalleda and Martín Berasategui, and in the international market as well.

At La Teca, Vila showed us the new wave of cheeses now being made. She explained how she and her team work with artisan producers to create innovative, unique cheeses, which then mature in the special cavas (caves) under the care of La Teca’s team. Maturation refines the flavors and textures of cheeses; the affineur’s job is to get cheeses to just the right point for consumption.

We also spoke with Kike Ojanduren, another iconic character of the local cheese scene in Barcelona. Ojanduren is from Asturias, one of the Spanish regions with the oldest and deepest connections to artisan cheesemaking. A well-known cheese distributor, he became the main owner of the Barcelona cheese shop Dotze Graus after building a longtime partnership with one of its founders, Pere Pujol, who left the shop in 2019 to dedicate himself to cheese production.

Dotze graus, which means 12 degrees Celsius (53.6º F) in Catalan, is the regular temperature of the whole shop – be sure to bring a jacket when you visit. The store acts as something of a giant refrigerator, following the style of many British cheese shops, keeping around ninety artisan cheeses at the perfect temperature. Leaning against a wall, we find Ojanduren’s trusty delivery bike, waiting to transport cheeses to the many restaurants around the city with whom he works.

The cheeses are all of the highest quality; half are locally made Catalan cheeses; another 40 percent come from the rest of Spain and just 10 percent are from elsewhere. Ojanduren and his employee Alexis, also a cheese expert, personally advise and educate each customer, explaining all the characteristics and peculiarities of the wonderful cheese they select.

“Catalunya is the area with largest number of artisan cheesemakers in Spain,” Ojanduren explains. “The growth in recent years is spectacular, from less than a hundred in 2011 to more than 200 producers in the last year. Maybe it’s too much? In Catalunya alone, around ten to fifteen new cheese makers appear every year.” This growth can probably be traced to the nearby French influence, but also has to do with the Catalan culinary boom, with tons of highly educated new chefs demanding quality cheese for their gastrobars and restaurants.

Whatever the reason, our obsession with Catalan cheese continues, spurred on by the old classics and new innovators. Here are some of our favorite local cheeses at the shops mentioned and beyond:

At Dotze Graus you will find the iconic Puigpedrós – perhaps the most famous cheese made by Molí de Ger and former owner Pere Pujol, the youngest generation of a family dedicated to cattle and agriculture. The Puigpedrós is a raw cow’s milk which has a firm interior and concentrated nuttiness with floral notes. It’s produced in a former grain mill, called Molí de Ger, in La Cerdanya, which was originally a cattle farm and later a dairy. Washed with brine, Puigpedrós has a distinctive orange rind.

Also at Dotze Graus – but possible to find in other cheese shops and good charcuteries around the city – we tasted a magnificent, multi-awarded (including the World Cheese awards 2013 and 2017) raw sheep’s milk, Serrat, from Casa Mateu in the Pyrenean village of Surp. In this style, the raw cheese is pressed tightly into molds to create a compact texture with little to no holes. It’s then cured for 8-10 months, creating a rind of natural mold. Extremely aromatic, it is a full-flavor cheese with high umami.

Biologist Paula Fonollà manages cheese production at Mas Reixagó, another old cattle farm converted wholly to dairying. Now owned by the Grau family, one of the favorite cheeses at Mas Reixagó is the raw cow’s milk Sant Ignasi, which has a soft rind and paste, with an almost liquid center, intense barnyard flavor, grassy notes and a lengthy finish. Mas Reixagó is also known for Blau de Jutglar, a creamy, spicy blue cheese also made from raw cow’s milk.

Mas d’Alba is a traditional 18th-century Catalan farmhouse that was restored and recently transformed into a hostel and dairy. There, the cheesemakers produce the aptly named Uff! – the perfect onomatopoeic expression for a stinky cheese. Made from raw goat’s milk, Uff! has a yielding consistency and medium intensity in flavor and is washed with an artisan blonde beer during its one-and-a-half-month maturation process.

In his former life, Salvador Maura I Rajó was an agronomic engineer, but at some point he realized that his fate was more linked to curds and whey than to managing rural development. He started the association of cheese artisans of the Pyrenees, and in 2001 he began producing his own cheese at Mas d’Eroles. He makes the wonderful raw cow’s milk Castellot, which has a brushed rind, compact interior and gentle persistence. We especially love his Brisat, also made from raw cow’s milk, whose rind is covered with grape pomace, which protects the cheese and lends it a subtle hint of wine and fruit.

Pablo García of La Balda has been making Fermió, another one of our favorites, since 2012, turning fresh milk from his neighbors in and around Sant Martin de Llémena into a simple soft cheese. He follows the traditions of the area – but with one eye on the French Saint-Marcellin. The result is elegant, full-bodied and delicious!

In any case these national treasures offer glorious, inexpensive pleasures, especially if we compare them with the industrial cheeses in supermarkets. You can taste the purity, quality and experience in each, and knowing how much hard work went into them makes them taste all the more unforgettable.

Published on April 05, 2023

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