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The Man Who Makes Cheese in a Cave

Self-guided walking holidays in SpainGuest blogger, Jack Montgomery of Buzz Trips, talks about an encounter with a traditional cheese-maker in the wild and beautiful mountains of Asturias.

What do you think this is?” Enrique holds up a bizarre contraption that could have been an instrument of torture, an ancient Asturian sex toy or the aftermath of a magician taking his saw to Zebedee from 'The Magic Roundabout'. I shake my head; my mind is well and truly boggled by the rusty spring coil fixed to a piece of wood that seems to have a parachute harness attached.

A beam splits Enrique's weather-kissed face. He steps into the harness and, with the spring jutting out from his rear end, walks over to a sheep, sits down and grabs its udders. After squirting a few streams of creamy milk into a tin bucket, he bounces his way over to the next in line. “Aaah,” the centimo drops and I laugh at Enrique hopping around on his ingenious and decidedly low-tech, hands-free milking stool. It is simple and surprising; a combination that in some ways is a reflection of the Picos de Europa themselves. The wildly rugged landscape is often harsh and even cruel to the people who live and work there but at the same time it's a landscape that holds you spellbound by its uncompromising beauty. 

Self-guided walking holidays in SpainThe Picos de Europa are epic in scale with a history that adds gravitas to scenery that stops you in your tracks. This jagged natural fortress defied the Moors in the eighth century and at tiny, magical Covadonga, hidden deep in the mountains' protective folds not far from Enrique's stone huts, the Reconquest of Spain began.

Their glacial lakes are icy looking and aloof, but that doesn't mean they aren't alluring. The fact that bears and wolves still roam these pastures and vultures patrol the skies makes the Picos de Europa feel like a frontier land where man has never quite gained the upper hand against nature. It is a landscape with a compelling personality. On a warm spring day, when wild flowers add colourful mosaic patterns to rolling emerald pastures framed by granite hard peaks, the scene around the valley where Enrique grazes his sheep is one which has me formulating dreamy visions of living an idyllic life sheep farming.

Self-guided walking holidays in SpainEnrique soon knocks such foolish, romanticised notions out of my head with tales of a constant battle to stop wolves and vultures from taking his flock. To rest awhile in these inspirational valleys is one thing but to carve a living here is a different bucket of ewe's milk altogether.

There are few people like Enrique left in these hills; the effort that farming in the Picos de Europa requires has motivated the next generation to seek alternative occupations. It might be for selfish reasons, but I desperately hope there will be others to take over his mantle.

I say selfish because Enrique makes the famous Asturian Gamoneu cheese. Gamoneu is a prince amongst blue cheeses, albeit one with a pauper's origins given that it is nurtured in the depths of a humble cave. For two months, the cheese matures in cool cavernous darkness, growing a crust as rugged as the rock it lies within.

After he's demonstrated his shock-absorbing milking stool, Enrique unveils a boulder sized round of Gamoneu and cuts a triangular chunk out of it, exposing a yellow heart through which azure veins course. Our table is a granite rock; our tablecloth a simple wooden board. Alongside the Gamoneu are thick slices of cured sausage and a chunky loaf of bread. It's a simple lunch; a shepherd's lunch and at this moment I wouldn't swap it for a feast in any Michelin-starred restaurant.

Self-guided walking holidays in SpainOne taste of the Gamoneu and I'm an addict. I expect it to be coarse and pungent, instead it's creamy with a hint of nuttiness and a cheeky, spicy after-taste that gives my tastebuds a bit of a flirty slap to remind them that it is, after all, a blue cheese.

I could spend all day sitting on a rock feeding my new found Gamoneu habit, chewing on cured sausage and wallowing in the scenery around Enrique's stone cottages but there are too many other simple surprises to be enjoyed in the Picos de Europa. With great reluctance I realise the time has come to say adios and move on. As I prepare to set off along the trail, Enrique has another question for me.

Do you know what vultures' favourite meat after lamb is?” the old cheese-maker asks. I shake my head. “British walkers.” He laughs, waves and turns away. I laugh along with him at his joke... at least I hope it was a joke.

Self-guided walking holidays in Spain

Posted: 07/11/2012 08:00:59 by Jack Montgomery | with 2 comments
Filed under: gastronomy, heritage, nature, slow, Spain


Comments
Steve J
Sounds like my idea of the perfect mountain lunch!
12/11/2012 15:22:04

Alison
It takes me back many years to my first trip to this jaw-droppingly beautiful corner of Spain and meeting characters like Enrique that still eke a living out of this beautiful landscape. Fortunately there are still a few 'Enriques' left. Lovely article!
07/11/2012 14:46:26

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