October 26 2011
Every time I go to Asturias, that northern Spanish region squeezed between the mountains and the sea, I make sure to bring back one of their highly addictive artisanal cheeses. Asturias claims to produce around 100 varieties from the milk of cows, goats and ewes, all of which spend contented lives nibbling at the verdant slopes of the Picos de Europa mountains. That spectrum would make for quite a cheeseboard, but with my luggage space restricted luggage, I have to be humble in my choice.
From an initial yen for the “stick to your palate” variety (Afuega’l pitu), I moved on to the sharpest bite of them all, Cabrales. Now Cabrales, pitched beside its euro equivalents, Stilton, Roquefort, Danish Blue and Gorgonzola, is off-the-scale blue, intense, pungent, piquant and salty, so a little goes a long way. Locals maintain that the cheeses (made from the unpasteurised milk of all three quadripeds) mature for months in the limestone caves that riddle the mountainside. Only four villages produce the real McCoy, labelled with its denominación d’origen stamp of quality.
However, now I am going to admit to a wild transgression. A few weeks ago, when passing through Cangas de Onis, an idyllically located Asturian village packed with hiking gear and food shops at the foot of the Picos de Europa, I discovered a different mountain cheese. Gamoneu del Puerto has the same blue threads as Cabrales, yet is infinitely more subtle, with greater complexity in flavour and texture. One small, lightly smokey piece veers from dry to soft and mellow to sharp, while the Rothko-esque rind blends rust-coloured hues with deep blue. This was queso heaven. I had soon emptied the tasting saucer of crumbly cubes and grabbed three large wedges to buy. Incidentally, the shop I was in, La Barata, an old family concern, stocks a fantastic array of Asturian food specialities – all vacuum-packed for odourless travel.
Surprised by the price (€28 per kilo, stratospheric for rural Spain) and wondering why I had never seen Gamoneu before, I made a few enquiries. It seems that this specific type, Gamoneu del Puerto, as opposed to the more common Gamoneu del Valle, is highly seasonal, produced only in summer from animals grazing high in the mountains. After maturing in a wooden hut, the cheeses are transferred to a cave for a couple of months, then brought down the mountain to be sold to a happy few.
I love it. It brings back the dramatic panoramas, the pure air, the (imagined) smokey hearth of a shepherd’s hut, the cobalt blue skies and the lush green slopes with the clonking of cow bells. The Sound of Music? No, The taste of queso!