This spring, I accompanied two of my best friends on a weekend getaway to Rioja, Spain — the land of rich, oakey wines, sumptuous bites, and miles of lush green fields and earthy hills. And when you put greens and hills together, you get cheese!
Yep. And goat cheese just happens to make me most happy.
Now, I guess some of you might not equate a vacation with doing work. And you might not conjure up the image of field animals when heading out of town. But for me, I suppose I want to step out of my element when abroad and experience something elemental about the location. And I love how food binds people together. I’ve come to believe that eating signifies something more. I believe in the constant search to nourish ourselves, to experience the feeling of contentment and fullness. I struggle with the beautifully horrific brevity of it. Everyone must eat. In breaking bread with others, I feel welcomed and known.
So, imagine us entering Berta’s Queseria with high aspirations, a few semesters of college Spanish and grumbling tummies. The goats had been milked and the frothy, sweet liquid awaited our cultivation.
This cheese-making excursion involved a very personal transaction between a woman, the sole cheese maker, educating us on the process of making cheese. She is a one-woman show, and her product is a fusion of half science, half art and 100 percent spirit. It wasn’t as if she “found her calling” and was chomping at the bit to share it with us. More so, the manner in which she makes cheese is dutiful, and yet pleasant. Berta is a natural teacher, who isn’t mystified by her craft, but appreciates its functionality. There were several points in the course where my friends and I “ooohed” and “aahhed” and she stared at us with a little confusion about what the fuss was all about.
But the fuss, let me assure you, was well deserved.
This is no artisan cheese maker. It doesn’t exist here. Berta is hard at work producing at least four unique handmade cheeses that will surely please all palates. The traditionally crafted goat style cheeses are made with goats her family farms. She makes a few soft cheeses (produced in a few days) that are similar to “fresh cheese.”
We got a huge lesson in how cheese is made. We ourselves made a cottage like cheese, adding the ingredients (rennet, salt) and monitoring the heat of the milk ourselves. It’s the rennet that is the magic key. Rennet contains many enzymes, including a proteolytic enzyme (protease) that coagulates the milk, causing it to separate into solids (curds) and liquid (whey).
The rennet used at this queseria was vegetarian, made from flowers. There are many sources of enzymes, ranging from plants, fungi and microbial sources, that can substitute for animal rennet. Other examples include dried caper leaves, nettles, thistles, mallow and ground ivy (Creeping Charlie).
We also toured the small building, checking out the big basin where the cheeses are made, and then peered into the humid controlled rooms where the molds rest, and well, get moldy. Berta can handmake 41 molds in one batch, taking most of the morning to make them and most of the afternoon to clean up. She sells 80 percent of the cheese to locals, and the rest at farmers markets and restaurants.
While tasting the cheese, Berta showed us the proper way to construct a cheese plate (going clockwise, place the most mild to the strongest cheese in order). And we sampled Berta’s fare. In fact, she opened up the “first cheese of the year,” which the locals have been salivating over in anticipation for the past few weeks, knowing the lovely little rounds had been resting for approximately two and a half months.
Tart, sweet, creamy, structured, yeasty, nutty and a little fruity, we nibbled and giggled and felt full. Berta told us the locals can sense the changes
in the goats’ diets because their palates are so refined.
Far from refinement, I think we were just high on the experience of being allowed in. Being spectators and appreciators of a small craft that is part of
something bigger: the land, the seasons, the creators that roam in both, and the lifelong learner dwelling in me.
Yes, generous and inviting Berta gave us some cheese to take home. One lasted four hours before we devoured it. The other, so precious, saved for a
week later, as I celebrated my birthday. With Berta’s cheese.
If you’d like to arrange a tour of your own, or learn more about the food and wine culture of Rioja, contact Jose at Instituto Hemingway at email@example.com.
The company has outstanding customer service and offers a range of culinary and cultural experiences.