In Search of Gamonéu del Valle PDO

The family behind Vega Ceñal Dairy is lucky enough to call the breathtaking village Gamonéu de Cangues home.  Located in Picos, they also produce one of the most special cheeses in Asturias: Gamonéu del Valle PDO 

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Gamonéu (or Gamonedo) is a slightly smoked fatty cheese that originated centuries ago in the homonymous area in the county of Cangas de Onís, in Picos, Eastern Asturias. It is produced from a blend of raw cow’s, goat’s and sheep’s milk and it is slightly spicy, with a crumbly texture and a subtle hazelnut aftertaste. This hard or semi-hard cheese has visible greenish-blue Penicillium close to the edges and its PDO comprises the counties of Cangas de Onís and Onís, both in Picos. This cheese represents like no other the essence of Asturias.

María del Mar Crespo, a member of the family who runs Vega Ceñal Dairy, says that ‘now after getting the PDO more cheese is produced, before it looked as if the cheese was deemed to disappear’. As a matter of fact, she is quite right since last year the production of this cheese, whose future was once feared to be threatened, went up 9%. 
 

This cheese was awarded PDO status in 2007, but its tradition goes centuries ago. Furthermore, there are 17th Century documents addressed to King Felipe IV that cited this cheese as the sustenance “of the county’s poorest”. The cheese is a product of the traditional local transhumance. The families who settled seasonally in the high mountains with their livestock looked for ways to keep the excess milk edible throughout the year. Cheese and butter was the answer.  

María del Mar has been working in the dairy for as far as she can remember and theirs is one of the nineteen PDO registered dairies that produce this unique cheese. At Vega Ceñal they raise their own animals and so the environmental footprint of their business is minimal as milk doesn’t need to be transported from afar. It all happens in the valley, in Gamonéu.

There are two types of Gamonéu cheese, ‘Del Valle’ (from the valley) and ‘Del Puertu’ (from the mountains). 

Gamonéu del Valle is made in the lower mountains, in the valley, all year round. This variety makes 96% of the total PDO production. Many of the producers have cleverly managed to recreate in their dairies the humidity and temperature conditions of the traditional limestone caves where all the cheeses used to be aged. In this way they are adapting their productions to health and safety EU regulations without compromising on their cheeses’ essence or quality. 

According to María del Mar, their peak production is thirty kilos a day and they are busiest in springtime. They make the cheese every other day and the production method is regulated by the PDO.

As she explains, the first step of the production is milking the animals. Then the three types of milk (cow’s, goat’s and sheep’s) are blended and warmed up, the curdling agent is added and the blend is left to set for 2 to 5 days. Then they are moulded and salted. After two or three days the cheese is smoked for at least 15 to 20 days and it’s also dried for two weeks. Then the cheese is taken to the caves –in the case of the Gamonéu del Valle the caves are usually recreated in their dairies- where it has to be for at least a month. 

At Vega Ceñal their cheeses are produced from the three types of milk and the percentages are roughly as follows: 25% goat’s, 25% sheep’s and 50% cows’ milk. The family has been in the business for generations and they have upgraded their Dairy in 2009 to the highest standards. If you feel you have to see where their magic happens –trust me, you won’t regret it- they offer guided Dairy tours every Saturday. Bookings on: +34 659 989 198.

On the other hand, Gamonéu del Puertu is one of the most exquisite and unique cheeses in the world. It is a seasonal cheese -only made in the summer months (June to September)- currently produced by only four cheese makers.

What is really exceptional about this cheese is that it is handmade in the tiny cabins in the high mountains (known as Puertu) in Picos, where the producers spend the summer months. Then it is matured in secret caves in the same area. The milk comes from animals that graze solely in the meadows up in the very same mountains in Picos. While up there, the cows, goats and sheep are out in the open, with no shelter whatsoever. Given the characteristics of the terrain, rough and accessible only on foot, carrying food for the animals isn’t an option and they are obviously grass-fed.

Furthermore, because Picos is a National Park, it is environmentally protected by law and building is forbidden –including stables or barns- thus the animals are in the outdoors at all times. One could say that Gamonéu del Puertu is basically a high mountain affair.   

Last year the production of Gamonéu del Puertu was 3,961 kg, just 4% of the total Gamonéu PDO production (Del Valle, produced throughout the year in the valley, makes 96% of the total). Moreover, the first Gamonéu del Puertu pieces of the season went for 38€/kg. If you want to try this exclusive variety, make sure you visit Asturias in October. Usually the first pieces are sold at Regional Fairs in October; the most popular is likely the annual Picos de Europa Cheese Fair –celebrating its 76th edition this year-. 

Gamoneu de Cangues / Monica R. Goya

Quesería “Vega Ceñal”
Gamonéu de Cangas
Cangas de Onís
Asturias

+34 626 444 003
+34 659 989 198

 
 
 

Cangas de Onís, a historic market city

Cangas de Onís farmers market offers a superb insight into Asturian food culture  

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Cangas de Onís is located in eastern Asturias, at the feet of Picos de Europa, surrounded by a lusciously green valley. Cangues, its Asturian language toponym and the name used by most locals, boasts the title of city and it was until the year 774 the capital of the Asturias Kingdom. Maybe that is why the replica of the Victory Cross (the original is kept in Oviedo's cathedral) hangs proudly from the Roman Bridge and it is one of the most iconic Asturian landmarks. Legend has it that its wooden core was carried by King Pelayo of Asturias in the infamous Battle of Covadonga, when he and his fellow paisanos defeated the Islamic military force ruling the rest of the Iberian peninsula. In hindsight, historians consider that battle the beginning of the Reconquista.

The first records of the Sunday market date from the Middle Ages. Furthermore, Gaspar Melchor de Jovellanos, a major figure of the Age of Enlightenment in Spain, described this market in his Diaries, written at the end of the 18th Century and first published in 1915, pointing out that on Sundays at the market there were "many people and bustling activity".

With a population of under 7,000, these figures grow considerably on Sundays as this is by far the most popular market of the area. It is located near the Palaciu Pintu and Santa María church, in an open plan space. A part of it is framed by a colonnade and while there are some stalls selling clothes and other goods, this is mainly a farmers market. A very special one that tells at a glance what Asturian food culture is all about. 

Most of the food sold at the market is grown/produced locally and most times by the same person who is selling the produce. It is a great chance to engage with the locals, willing to explain the properties of their foods. From fresh fruit and veg, to organic honey, cured meats, superb seafood pâtés, Asturian legumes (if you are a bean stew fan, this is the place to gather high-quality produce at a reasonable price), local hazelnuts (there are at least five varieties unique to Asturias), Asturcilla, homemade jams, preserves, breads (Asturian spelt ones are remarkable), pastries and desserts (look for frixuelos or casadielles), the quality is outstanding. Nevertheless, the big deal here is the cheese.

Cheese is the most predominant product in the market and a reason enough to travel to Cangues. Asturias is a cheese destination, also known as the "country of the cheese". Having over 40 different varieties, it is extremely difficult to choose just one; there is certainly an Asturian cheese for every occasion and person. However, if you go to Cangues, the ones you must try are these three:

All of them are produced in the Picos de Europa area and its surroundings. Cabrales is the most international Asturian cheese, available worldwide, produced in the homonymous county and three towns in Peñamellera Alta, while Gamoneú is native of Cangas/Cangues de Onís and one surprisingly, still one of Asturias' best secrets. A slightly smoked high-fat blue cheese, its quality is superb and its rich, strong flavour will stay with you. Los Beyos is produced in both Ponga and Amieva counties and hopefully its current PGI will soon become a PDO.

Of course there are dozens of other Asturian cheeses on offer, from the Western part, (Oscos, Taramundi) to the Eastern (Llanes) also worth tasting.

Best time of the year to visit: if you are into cheese, October is when most cheese festivals and fairs are held. Plus, you get to try the hazelnuts (ablanes in Asturian language, what most signs read) from nearby areas like Piloña, where these nuts grow in clover. Furthermore, if you happen to be there on the first weekend of October, don't miss the Hazelnuts Fair in Infiesto (16 miles from Cangues).

 
 

Behind the scenes at Cueva del Molín, Cabrales 

From this weekend anyone can visit the caves at Cueva del Molín dairy to experience the richness of the Cabrales cheese maturing process

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Asturias' nickname, land of cheeses, is well deserved as this tiny Principality produces over 40 different cheeses. Not surprisingly, one of the best blue cheeses in the world, Cabrales Cueva del Molín, is made in the region. 

If you ask any Asturian kid what does Cabrales smell like, they will probably grimace in disapproval. Usually kids don’t like strong flavours or smells and everyone can tell when there is Cabrales on the table. Luckily, many grown-ups get to love strong, intense blue cheeses. If you are one of them, it is worth travelling to Asturias, not only to try Cabrales Cueva del Molín but also to enjoy the road that leads you there. 

 

Cabrales is a Spanish semi-hard, fatty blue cheese and without doubt the most popular Asturian cheese.   

Cueva del Molín is a family run dairy, based in Cabrales. They produce sixty tons of cheese a year and they process around 4,000 litres of milk every day. To qualify as a D.O.P product (Protected Designation of Origin, PDO), Cabrales must be made in the homonymous county or three villages in Peñamellera Alta, Oceño, Cáraves and Rozagás. Cabrales cheese can be produced from cows’ milk or a combination of sheep, cows and goats’ milk as well. Cueva del Molín is made from cows’ milk only and the milk is provided by Central Lechera Asturiana. The elaboration process starts with raw, unpasteurized milk.

Manuel Rodríguez, the artisan cheese maker head of the dairy, explains that he started in the cheese business in 1997. Born and bread in Cabrales, he knows his cheese and good proof of it is that in the latest World Cheese Awards in London his Cabrales won the Super Gold medal, meaning that his is one of the best blue cheeses in the world.

The only milk they can use to produce this D.O.P. cheese has to come from cows that graze on the green and wild Cabrales’ pastures or those three villages in Peñamellera Alta. You can find Cabrales Cueva del Molín cheese in most places in Asturias, but to understand its nuances it is worth travelling to the foot of Picos de Europa National Park, where this cheese is produced.  It takes at least more than two months to produce one single Cabrales cheese. Manuel says that the flavour of the cheese varies depending on how long they leave it in the caves for. Its colours and texture vary as well. The cheese is white at first but after some time in the cave it gains its characteristic blue colour. 

At Cueva del Molín they follow the same traditional maturing method than one hundred years ago. If you wonder how their cheese is made you can visit the caves from this Saturday. Only small groups (12 people at a time) are allowed and booking is essential. The visits will typically run for one hour (weekends only) and the artisans will share the details about the ancient art of maturing cheese in caves. 

Cueva del Molín caves aren't as rustic as the ones hidden in the middle of the mountains, the access is relatively comfortable (double check but likely disable access is available) and there is light inside. My first impression was of surprise as for some reason I imagine getting there would be a sort of gymkhana. The smell isn't as strong as I did expect and after seeing the whole process, I appreciate even more how much care and know-how is put into the making of this cheese. The uniqueness of the caves together with the breathtaking landscape is worth the journey. 

Cueva Del Molin Dairy
Carreña de Cabrales

33555 - Asturias
Tel. +34 985845132

 

 
 

The great dame of the Casín cheese

One of the oldest cheeses in Europe, the Casín cheese, is intrinsically linked to the life history of an Asturian entrepreneur, Marigel Álvarez, the first who commercialised this artisan cheese with a seven-centuries-old tradition

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The Casín cheese is a full-fat cheese, matured, with an inviting smell. It is made of whole raw milk, rich in butter. In 2006 it gained the Protected Designation of Origin (DOP in Spanish) and the Asturian counties included are Caso, Sobrescobio and Piloña. The milk the cheese is made from must come from cows of regional breeds, Asturiana de la Montaña o Casina, Asturiana de los Valles, Frisona and their crossbreeds. 

When Marigel started her adventure in the cheese world, in 1989, the Casín cheese had never been marketed before. Furthermore, partly due to the depopulation of the areas where the cheese had been traditionally elaborated, the Casín was going through a difficult time.   

She had come from Germany a few years ago. Her parents migrated there when she was a child and it was there where she grew up and met her husband, Pepe Luis. In 1975 they moved back to Asturias with their family and they call Caso county (Pepe Luis homeland) home ever since. 

“When you live in the countryside you need to develop your own job” says Marigel. After thinking of dozens of ideas to start a business to improve her family economic security, she went for the Casín cheese. “In the Eighties in Asturias there was an explosion of dairies, Afuega l’Pitu, Cabrales, and I joined them, I learnt to make cheese from other cheese artisans” she says. Her mother-in-law, from Caso, was her first mentor. Marigel spent more than one year nailing her cheese to be marketed and creating its technical data sheet. Moreover,  she completed her training with dozens of courses. It took her two years to start selling the cheese and she overcame numerous struggles on her way. For example, when the dairy farmers she used to buy her milk from decided to sell their milk quotas, she had two options: closing down or buying cows. She chose the second. ‘The most important thing is that the cows graze here, in these pastures that produce this milk” claims Marigel.

The Casin cheese has an unknown origin but there are documentary references dating it back to 14th Century.  Also, some specialists link the unusual curds-kneading technique to the Neolithic and the first population of the Iberian Peninsula.   

What makes this cheese special and unique is that the artisan technique is based on kneading the same curd several times. When the milk becomes curd, the whey is drained-off. After that the curd is wrapped in cheesecloths where it continues draining-off for three or more days. The outcome is known in Asturias as ‘gorollos’ (cylindrical shaped curds). To shape the ‘gorollos’ Marigel uses the table or a special machine built for that purpose.

In her hands is the knowledge to decide when the curds have had enough turns and they are ready. Once she decides that that turn is going to be the last one, she shapes the ‘gorollos’ manually into a spherical form. The final product usually measures between 15 and 20 centimetres diameter, height is between 4 and 7 centimetres and it weighs between 250 and 600 grams. Each dairy has its own decorations and they print them directly on the cheeses using stamps made of wood or metal. Marigel’s cheeses feature Caso’s coat of arms, framed by the words ‘Quesu Casín’ and her initials, M.A.

Currently Marigel makes around 40.000 litres of milk annually and she admits that the PDO the cheese achieved in 2006 has helped spread the word about the Casín. “The PDO is a quality label that supports you anywhere you go” ensures the artisan cheesemaker. In 2012 she was awarded the Silver Medal of Asturias for her admirable career and her key role leading the way to the D.O.P. In her speech Marigel assured that the Casín cheese has a brilliant future “because this cheese is stronger than me”. Hopefully she is right. In the mean time, we can enjoy the Casín cheese, shaped by those hands that keep all the knowledge and experience of having fought for almost 20 years to achieve its recognition and revival. 

Quesería de Redes

Reciegos, El Llano, 18, 33990 - Campo de Caso, Asturias