Cheese Whiz….Why K Loves Rioja

Start Clockwise from the mildest to the Strongest Cheese

This past Spring Break I corralled two of my best friends for a weekend getaway to Rioja, Spain. The land of rich, oakey wines, sumptuous bites, and miles 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 people SMILE. For some of you, vacation means someone makes your bed and does the dishes while the only work that you are doing involves a deepening a tan. You might not dream about spending time with field animals or a cold kitchen when you start making your plans to head out of town. But you most likely think about food. Vacation food. Creamy waffles, crunchy French fries and the morning breakfast buffet. And even though I like to learn and explore and work on vacations, it is very much about the food. I love how food binds people together. Eating signifies something more than just tasting and refueling. Our constant search to nourish ourselves, to experience the feeling of contentment and fullness and to SHARE it with others is highlighted when we are out of our routine. There is a beautiful brevity to it. Everyone must eat. In “breaking bread, with others, we can feel welcomed, and known. So, Imagine us accomplished women entering Berta’s Queseria with high aspirations, a few semesters of college Spanish, and grumbling tummies Easter morning. Yep…the goats had been milked and the frothy, sweet liquid awaited our cultivation.

Pouring the milk to be heated and then, as wheys and curds separate, filtered

This cheese making excursion involved a very personal transaction with Berta, 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% 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 me and my friends 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. The term isn’t applicable in Rioja, but nevertheless, 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,” a round sweet aromatic soft cheese, a creamy spread of cheese,

HIgh Protein Whey Cheese

and two rounds with varying degrees of texture and salty, fermented strength. 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). They are also very important in the stomach of young mammals as they digest their mother’s milk. 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 got a rather detailed lesson in how the cheese is made. We also toured the small building, checking

The Cheese Storage

out the big basin where the cheeses are made, and then peering into the humid controlled rooms were the molds rest, and well, get moldy.

Berta can hand make 41 molds in one batch, taking most of the morning to make them and most of the afternoon to clean up. She sells 80% of the cheese to locals, and the rest at farmer’s markets and a handful of small restaurants. In 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 in anticipation for the past few weeks, knowing the lovely little rounds had been resting for approximately 2 1/2 months. Tart, Sweet, Creamy, Structured, yeasty, nutty, and a little fruity,

Oh, this is heaven.

we nibbled and giggled, and felt full. Berta tells us that 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 yearning to LEARN….even, when, on vacation. Generous and inviting Berta gave us some cheese to take “home.” One lasted four hours before we devoured it. The other, so precious, waits on shelf in my pantry. Deepening its flavor in quiet transactions of its cells with the air. The cells maturing for the right moment, waiting to honor a “special moment,” where vacation and “home” will briefly rendezvous, in the shared, delightful re-savoring of 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 <>. The company has outstanding customer service and offers a range of culinary and cultural experiences


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