Blue Cheese Spends Months in a Cave
Cabrales is a signature blue cheese made in Asturias, Spain. One of these wheels can sell for more than $20,000. To be authentic Cabrales, the milk must come from dairies in the area, and the wheels must spend at least two months aging in natural caves to let the mold do its work. Cheese aficionados are willing to spend thousands of dollars for this delicacy — here’s the incredible story of how it’s made.
It all starts with the milk at the Vega de Tordín cheese factory. Run by six generations of Dorita Diaz’s family, the old, traditional ways of making Cabrales are now blended with modern technology. “Today we use a robot to milk the cows that is super high-tech. The cows go to get milked when they feel like it. Back in the day, it wasn’t like this. We would milk the cows in the morning and at night.” said Dorita Díaz, owner of Quesería Vega de Tordín.
Each cow wears a collar that tells the machine the cow is ready to be milked. It also collects data, like fat and protein levels and the temperature of the milk. This helps Dorita select the highest quality milk for her cheese. “In the past, we had a maximum of 70 to 100 liters. Now our daily production ranges around 1,000 liters, which gives us 30 to 40 pieces of cheese,” said Diaz.
The raw milk chills for 24 hours before going in this tank, where it thickens and curdles. This layer is first cut by machine to form the curds. Then the small pieces are smashed by hand. Each mold is labeled with the date, and the curds are piled up to form the wheel. Some blue cheese brands are squeezed tight and later injected with mold, but not authentic Cabrales. They overflow because as the cheese rests, the curds fall into place to leave pockets for the fungus to naturally seep in. Then come two rounds of salting and resting. “Once the cheese has absorbed the salt, it goes to a drying room, where it stays between 15 and 20 days. Once that cheese has dried, it goes on to another phase, which is the maturation in natural caves,” said Diaz.
The super high humidity and cool temperatures of the limestone cave make up the perfect conditions for a strain of penicillium fungus to grow. It worms its way into the center of the wheel as it ages, forming the signature blue-green veins. The wheels get occasionally turned and cleaned. The longer the cheese spends in the cave, the softer it gets inside. “Cabrales cheese is special because of its peculiar strong taste … for the quality of milk it is made with, the skill of the cheesemaker, and the months it spends in the caves, which is part of its essence,” said Diaz.
Production of Cabrales has been regulated and protected by a designation of origin since the 1980s. One of the rules is that it has to reach the market looking like this. “An authentic Cabrales has to be wrapped with this green paper and surrounded by a band, which corresponds to the factory that made it — in our case Vega de Tordín,” said Diaz.
All this hard work can pay off. “In the annual Cabrales competition, the winning cheese is auctioned between restaurants. The bidding had never gone past 4,500 euros, but in 2016, when we won, the bid ended up at 11,000 euros,” said José Vicente, Vega de Tordín manager, and Dorita’s son.
At last year’s contest, the highest bidder paid about $22,000 for the winning blue cheese wheel — a world record for the most expensive cheese sold at the auction. But normally, a piece of Cabrales is much more affordable. A kilo sells for $22 to $55 depending on the cheese’s maturity. Here at Vega de Tordín, visitors can buy cheese after touring the factory. The family launched these tours when they moved to this location in 2016. “We built these facilities as a result of a catastrophe we suffered in 2012. A water pipe busted, ripping off everything in its way. Including our former Vega de Tordín cheese Factory.” said Diaz. The old factory was completely destroyed. So José Vicente and Isabel quit their jobs to help their mom rebuild the business from scratch. “In honor of my family, I had to rebuild this pillar that is so important to me. And today, I’m fortunate to say I’m happy,” said Diaz.
Source: Business Insider