My cheeserimage or How I fell in love with cabrales

A bulky parcel arrives at the door of my house in south London, and as I tear open the wrapping – first thick transparent plastic, then a padded envelope, then bubble wrap – the courier looks on uneasily: What is this, his expression says, some as yet respectable-looking crackhead who’s heading way on down – and fast? Sensing his mounting opprobrium, I scribble with the stylus on the hideous little grey screen of his hideous little handheld computer and gesture him away. Alone, I head for the kitchen … and the knives.

Trying to maintain an even keel, I breathe deeply, slit through the thick outer vacuum-sealed plastic and inhale that tantalisingly earthy yet living odour – when it comes to describing the aroma of this, my favourite comestible in the world, comparisons are odious – and yet … and yet … is it not something like one imagines urine and vaginal mucus drying in the pubic hair of a mountain goddess would smell? My hands shake as I search the foil inner sleeve for a break – but then I loose control altogether and tear away at it, exposing one final clear plastic prophylactic, through which I can see the veined and warty exterior of the dairy thing that I love. Deftly, I slit through this then cut into the rich mother lode to reveal its glaucous yet pearlescent inscape.

All remaining dignity long since shredded, I bow my head, gape my troubled jaws, and at last I have it in my mouth! The first notes are an explosion of nuttiness on the tongue, that, as I masticate turn to a loamy, truffle intensity. Other flavours coming winging in from the sides of my palate: a smokiness that’s almost metallic – as if someone were smelting iron in the region of my gums. Then comes the excruciatingly long aftertaste: dense, spicy to the point of being chilli-laden – and yes, of course, cheesy, although to describe Queso de Cabrales as a mere cheese is akin to saying Francis Bacon’s Study after Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X is a nice picture of a Catholic priest. This isn’t cheese as commonly understood – this is cheese as way of life, as faith, cheese as a screamingly indubitable reality above and beyond our own mundane cream cracker of a world.

Standing there in my kitchen, with fragments of cabrales tumbling from my numb lips, I think back some four years ago to a sunlit July afternoon on a beach in the north Kent town of Whitstable and a small house that looks across the estuary of the River Swale towards the benighted Isle of Sheppey, for it was in this unlikely setting that I experienced my coup de foudre – where I fell in love with … with a cheese. True, I’ve always liked cheese – and favoured the strong over the weak. A sharp Montgomery cheddar, certainly – a well-aged Stilton, why not? For some years it’s been my eldest son’s prerogative to give me a Stinking Bishop for Christmas – a cheese of such uncompromising whiffiness that the rest of the family oblige me to keep it in the garden shed, only bringing it in when I want to smear chunks of the stuff on fruit cake. Yummy. Still, while I’ve always been something of a cheese-fancier, I’ve never ended up as I did in my relationship with cabrales, scouring the city for it – and eventually travelling over 1,000 miles to the Picos de Europa of the Asturias region in northern Spain, there to encounter the Loved One in its limestone lair.

But first: that July afternoon. We ate lunch on the lawn as the tide sucked away. A Range Rover Vogue driven by two young twerps came barrelling down the ramp from the seawall and began cutting figure eights on the muddy foreshore until it became hopelessly bogged. The foolish whelps got out and began dancing around their stricken luxury vehicle – how we laughed. Eventually, taking pity, my friend Peter and I gathered some driftwood and set off to try and help them. Upon reaching the youths we discovered they were close to tears. ‘The w-worst thing is …’ one of them blubbed, ‘it’s my dad’s car!’ We repressed our merriment, but it resurged as a brick-red mountain of a man, bare-chested and with moobs wobbling like cheese soufflés, bellowed the 200 yards from the seawall: ‘I am NOT AMUSED!’.

It took them another hour to schlupp the car out of the gloop and all that time we sat and laughed and ate cabrales. So for me the cheese became fused with that experience – with the sun and the schadenfreude. In the years to come, I ate more and more of this magnificent stuff, while over and above the sheer taste there shone the penetrating heat of that July day, as from the very core of my being radiated an intense pleasure that I should be consuming cabrales while so many others were denied it. My friend Peter, whose Kentish gaff it was, told me that they sold the cheese of the gods at Brindisa, a trendy Spanish delicatessen in Exmouth Market near Clerkenwell in London. So, every time I was passing that way I picked up a wedge or a wheel and hefted it home with me. I ate my cabrales with oat cakes, or accompanied with the compressed fig and date cakes the deli also sold – or I ingested it au naturel revelling in the extremity of its flavour.

As I say, I had always liked cheese – but cabrales was cheese to the nth power, it eclipsed all other churned concoctions of milk and rennet with the eerie totality of darkness at noon. Be that as it may, such is the queer nature of the psyche that I became accustomed to cabrales – I even, gulp, came to take it for granted. And then, one day, I swung into Brindisa, asked Henning, the tall Danish man behind the counter, for my usual demi-kilo, and he uttered the dread words: ‘We’re no longer stocking it.’ I do believe I may’ve wept shocked tears – I certainly went into some form of denial. However, eventually he convinced me that this was indeed so, and sent me on my way with a few grams with which to taper off my addiction. I believe he may also have offered me counselling – like I say, Brindisa is a trendy gaff. He definitely uttered the hateful explanation, ‘There just isn’t enough demand for it.’

In the weeks and months that followed, to paraphrase the great Chi-Lites, I saw her face everywhere I went, on the street and even at the picture show … I would stagger into delis and specialist cheese shops, gasping: Have you seen her, tell me have you seen her? Why oh why did she have to leave and go away! That my love was a cheese hardly made my loss easier to bear, and while it’s true that my search wasn’t exhaustive (searching exhaustively for a Spanish cheese would surely be a sign of, well … madness, right?), it … well, preoccupied me. I discovered a tapas bar on the Old Brompton Road that served a sliver of the Desired One along with some other, pitifully undistinguished Spanish cheeses, and for a while I tolerated the swishing ponytails and pink lips of the Fulham girls, and the braying of their wanker-banker boyfriends simply so I could savour these morsels – then this joint also discontinued cabrales. I idly considered fire-bombing it.

Naturally, I had long since read up on cabrales. I knew that it was only produced in Picos de Europa by small dairy farmers who grazed cows in the valleys, and sheep and goats on high pastures in the sierra. I knew also that the greatest piquancy was achieved by mixing these three milks together, stirring in rennet*, then abstracting the curds into circular moulds that sat on the dairy’s shelves for a couple of weeks before being transferred to natural limestone caves where in 90% humidity – although at relatively low temperatures – the cheeses matured for the next six to nine months, the penicillin bacterium worming its way through the warty exterior and silvering the core. Someone had told me – and this I found easy to believe – that the slang name for cabrales in Asturias was ‘the Devil’s shit’. It fitted: there was something dangerously sinful about a forkful of this excrementally elemental stuff. This wasn’t posturing gastronomy – but a Faustian pact with shit-eating Beelzebub!

And of course, I began to consider heading for northern Spain to spear the cheesy beast in its native lair; after all, if the mountain wouldn’t come to Mahomet and all that jazz. Still, I demurred – in recent years I haven’t wanted to go anywhere much, even limping to the corner shop for a nylon string scrotal sac full of miniature Babybels has come to seem a hell of a trek. Moreover, I don’t like flying, all that queuing at the airport, the discomfort, the flimsy tray tables, and – my dear! – have you ever noticed how lousy cheese tastes on planes? It must be something to do with the pressurisation. So, to go all that way simply in order to eat a cheese – even one of rare and ineffable beauty – seemed more than a solecism. I mean, let’s face it, the opening lines of The Canterbury Tales do not read:

 

When April with his showers sweet with fruit
The drought of March has pierced unto the root
And bathed each vein with liquor that has power
To generate therein and sire the flower;
When Zephyr also has, with his sweet breath,
Quickened again, in every holt and heath,
The tender shoots and buds, and the young sun
Into the Ram one half his course has run,
And many little birds make melody
That sleep through all the night with open eye
(So Nature pricks them on to ramp and rage)—
Then do folk long to go on cheeserimage,

No, they do not.

Yet I did – I did long to go on cheeserimage, and eventually the opportunity presented itself: I had to go to Toulouse on an oxymoron (literary business), and a cursory examination of the map suggested to me that the Asturias region of northern Spain wasn’t too far away. I could entrain to Toulouse then drive to the fount of all cheesiness – so that was how I discovered myself at a Toulouse Airport car hire bureau on an overcast Wednesday afternoon in early June, shaking hands with the impossibly bright-eyed and bushy-tailed Esquire photographer Carlos de Spinola. I often deride the youth of today for their lack of orientation – snouts stuck in their iPads, synthesised voices piped into their lugholes, the wired generation seem to me too busy Googling the world to goggle at it. But on this occasion it was me who was hopelessly lost, for, as Carlos attached the sat-nav to the windscreen of our humpbacked Ford and began expertly to programme it, I bit down on the fact that while in my European road atlas Toulouse and Asturias were a mere vache qui rit apart, on the ground it was going to be a brutal nine-hour drive.

I’d never been wooed through the world by the silkily robotic tones of a sat-nav before – and I found it a curiously disconcerting experience. I began by hating the disembodied woman – I might’ve ended up by loving her, had my heart not already belonged to another cheesier one. Still, one function of sat-nav is indisputable: as you are triangulated across the surface of the earth with pinpoint accuracy (except for those curious episodes when the programme is out of date and you find yourself ploughing across virtual fields), you become disorientated in a direct correlation. By one the next morning, when we finally pulled into the dirt track that led up to La Casona de Cave, the rustic retreat on the fringe of the Picos de Europa National Park where we were to spend the next two nights, I could’ve been on the moon for all I knew. If this wasn’t discombobulating enough – there was also Carlos, who was bright, engage, and irrepressibly chatty. Well, just as I’ve given up travelling in recent years – so talking has come to seem something of a fag. Maybe it was my being on cheesy-tenterhooks, but I ended up talking more to Carlos during that drive, the following long day, and the day after that when we drove back to France, more than I have spoken to my wife in the last decade of our marriage.

We were put to bed by Javier Alcántara, the whiplash-thin patron of La Casona. The accommodation was in a steep-gabled converted barn stuck together out of carved trusses and large chunks of masonry. My room was as woody as a … cheeseboard. Appropriately, I slept as soundly as a log. In the morning, I emerged on to the veranda to see a gorgeous prospect of deep green valley and soaring, serrated limestone peaks capped by a froth of cloud. Over a breakfast consisting of two kinds of cheese (neither of them cabrales, so obviously not worthy of mention), locally sourced honey, yoghurt and coffee, we chatted in three-way pidgin with Javier. Javier had a little French but no English – I had plenty of English and a little French. Carlos – being a Portuguese Mozambican by origin – understood a little Spanish, but couldn’t speak it.

Nevertheless, we managed to gather the salient facts: Javier, a refugee from computer-programming in Madrid had established a small slice of paradise here in the Picos de Europa. The season for his guesthouse was relatively short – which left him long, quiet winters in which to enjoy the silence and raise – together with his wife Elena – their rambunctious boy children. Even during the on season, La Casona was seldom visited by anyone but Spaniards and the very occasional German (but then you’d find him on the moon). Javier had never, ever seen an Englishman in the Picos before. Far be it from me to write cheesy travel puff; however, having spent a couple of nights Chez Javier, let me tell you, if you want peerless scenery, deep calm, and no Daily Mail readers within screaming distance – make for La Casona de Cave.

We didn’t have long to savour the ambience because our Virgil awaited us in the form of Alejandra Sánchez Añil, the woman charged with representing the Consorcio des Alimentos Tradicionales de Asturias to this foreign cheesehead and his snap-happy sidekick. Alejandra was a stately dark-haired woman, swathed in diaphanous batik and accompanied by her smiley 13-year-old daughter, Arizona, and a dark-suited driver. We got back in our Ford and followed her car along switchback roads, through tunnels carved in the limestone then alongside rushing rivers and up steeper and steeper gradients until we reached the remote mountain village of Tielve. Here we encountered Hosé Bada, one of the 10 local producers of cabrales, who between them operate eight small dairies.

The air was alpine-fresh with notes of hay and dung. Bada was a stocky, taciturn fiftyish man with piercing grey eyes and reddish hair. His stocky, reddish-haired cattle were being milked – so I went into their parlour to see if their eyes were grey as well. The farmhands stood about clicking and purring in the local dialect, while their sheepdogs whined at their gum-booted feet. Through Alejandra I learnt that the flocks of goats and sheep were high up on the mountain grazing – and that the main stock-management problem hereabouts was the wolves, who, Bada remarked testily, were better protected than the people. In Bada’s battered pickup we went further up the valley to visit a flock of milk-for-cabrales-producing goats, which clustered behind an anti-wolf electric fence staring at us through their inscrutably alien oblong pupils.

Alejandra kept up a steady stream of cabrales information: how different types of milk were used to make the cheese at different times of the year, how these small producers couldn’t conform entirely to the standards required for their cheese to be sold in the major supermarket – although they do, of course, have DOC (Denominazione Origine Controllata) status: no cheese can be called Queso de Cabrales that doesn’t come from these cows, these goats and sheep, and which isn’t mixed-up with rennet in a big steel bathtub in the village of Tielve. No cheese can bear the noble bronze roundel reading ‘Elaboracion Artesanal con Leche Cruda de Vaca’ unless it has been made using the curds that Bada’s mother Angelika lifts from the stiffening gloop and breaks with her bare old hands … I exaggerate slightly – but only a bit. For, as we stood in the ammoniac intensity of the dairy, and Bada showed us the moulds in which the newly coagulated cabrales sets for three days, being turned regularly and salted, before being moved on to their limestone caves, it dawned on me that whatever the frivolity of my queso-quest, this was a hard business for the cheese makers, with scant financial return.

Later, Bada took us in his pickup a mile down the valley road, we turned off and humped and bumped up a track. We got out and he unlocked a rusted iron door in the side of a rock face. Inside of this was a dank cave that stretched some 180 metres into the mountain. It was dripping from its weedy ceiling and along its irregular sides snaked shelving upon which sat cabrales after cabrales after cabrales, all a little irregular in size, all uniquely cultivating their immemorial bacterial flavour – all lovely in my eyes. This was it! The Sybil’s cave! the natal cleft in which cabrales gestated for nine full months before being push-push-puuushed out into the wide, wild world. I had reached the end of my cheeserimage and I was happy, blissfully happy.

Or at least would’ve been – were it not for one miserable fact, which must now be faced up to. Back in Bada’s dairy he had allowed us all to have a little nugget each of the sainted stuff in its immature state. I exalted in the flavour of this farouche cabrales – Alejandra, who had admitted to me that she ‘adored’ the cheese and ate it most days – usually for dessert – was similarly entranced. Zona wrinkled up her snub nose, while Carlos – Carlos! – nibbled a bit and said, ‘Mm, this is pretty good – not as strong as I’d expected. But really, it’s not my sort of thing.’

Not my sort of thing! His sacrilegious words rung in my ears setting off an avalanche of poorly-repressed memories. Not my sort of thing! I thought back to Peter, the friend who’d introduced me to cabrales and who evinced a certain astonishment when he realised how obsessed I’d become with the stuff: ‘It’s an interesting cheese,’ he’d said, ‘but not exactly an everyday sort of thing.’ I recalled those miserable swine at Brindisa and how they’d stopped stocking cabrales with the pitiful penny-pinching petit-bourgeois excuse that ‘There just isn’t enough demand for it.’ I thought back to all the friends upon whom I’d pressed cabrales, exulting ‘Believe me, it’s the closest thing you’ll experience to a major hallucinogenic drug experience in cheese form,’ only to have them wrinkle up their noses – although not as prettily as Alejandra’s well-brought-up daughter.

The rest of that day passed in something of a blur – if you can imagine the intense white heat of an inner-rage blurring anything. I know we went and visited another larger cabrales dairy, I know we went into the settlement of Las Arenas and visited another, far larger, cave full of maturing cabrales – one where the ammoniac intensity was so great I could use it to explain away my tears. I know we had lunch in the nearby town of Poo de Cabrales, and that Alejandra prevailed upon the restaurateur to prevail upon the chef to serve us with all sorts of cabrales dishes – cabrales smeared on endive, cabrales croquettes, roundels of cabrales drizzled with balsamic vinegar – but even this cabrales-saturated atmosphere failed to dispel my murderous mood. Late that afternoon, having said goodbye to Alejandra and Zona, the traitor and I went for a walk high up in the Sierra de Cavadonga above Con. It was a beautiful scene, the greensward rolling away through mossy outcrops surrounded by plantations of mountain ash. It all reminded me of Middle Earth – not that I’ve taken a holiday there you understand.

I looked at Carlos, wholly unaware of the furies he had unleashed and strolling along blithely by my side – would that some orcs would descend on us and hack him to pieces! How dare he? How dare he say cabrales was ‘not his sort of thing’ – how dare anyone say such a thing. I thought of my witchy wife, and how when I had tenderly offered her some of this manna back in London, she’d snapped back: ‘I don’t want any of your manky old cheese.’ She would be burned at the toothpick! As would all others who dared to profess such heresy! Yes, yes – I know this all sounds a bit over the top, but then that’s the problem: when you go on a cheeserimage you’re almost bound to end up a cheesy fanatic, even if you weren’t one to begin with.

 This article first appeared in the November edition of Esquire magazine.

* I know it isn’t customary to put footnotes in magazine articles, but before you reel back from the page in disgust may I just say if you want to be nauseated consider rennet for a while. Rennet! The sliced and diced lining of unweaned calves’ fourth stomachs! Rennet, the complex of enzymes derived thereof that are employed to break down milk into curds and whey. Rennet! Conceivably more revolting than slowly licking George Osborne’s perineum – yet we eat it most days. I rest my case for the footnote.