It's 8am and the only sound to be heard on the road running between Soto del Real to Miraflores de la Sierra, in the Guadarrama mountains, 60 or so kilometers northwest of Madrid, is the engine of a Mercedes C220.
The car turns to the right and takes a steep hill, lined by thin, wintry trees. In the pastureland that rises above us, half hidden by the mist, stands an impressive structure made of concrete, glass and stone. José Luis gets out of the car. Yesterday's rain has frozen on the ground, and the cold bites into the bones. "As you can see, this has been built specially for the purpose: it's what we need to make our cheeses, combining the latest technology with tradition," he says proudly, sliding open the door to the building.
Inside, you're greeted by a passage running some 40 meters lined with white steel panels. On the left are the shelves where the cheeses with natural rinds are made and then stored. On the right, the mold-ripened cheeses. In a huge vat sits around 1,400 liters of goats' milk brought from herds grazing in the nearby hills. The liquid will soon be moved into another vat, this time containing quark, where it will be stirred until it turns to a thick crumble. "Then we mold it, press it, and add salt. In theory, the fresh cheeses are not pressed, but we do it to get more of the liquid out. In this way, the cheese, aside from not tasting of water, is denser, and doesn't crumble when cut," explains José Luis, who in 2011, decided to quit his job in a department store and revive the cheesemaking tradition of Miraflores de la Sierra, helped by his wife and daughter.
Madrid's cheese industry is growing fast. Eleven new companies have been created in the last three years, bringing the total number of cheesemakers in the region to 28.
They make around 86 different varieties of this ancient product, which is now very much in fashion. But Madrid's cheeses have yet to be granted their own denomination of origin.
IMIDRA, the environment ministry body tasked with research and development in agriculture, has decided to address the question. The first step has been to prepare a map of the Madrid region showing the location of each cheesemaking plant, and to encourage manufacturers to up their output and improve the quality of their product.
"We may not be able to compete in terms of output with other areas, but we can certainly match them when it comes to quality," says IMIDRA director Cristina Álvarez.
Over the next two years, she will be working with a panel of professionals to establish a ranking of the best cheeses in Madrid and standards for other important factors, such as the best time of year for production.
"Then we will take the cheeses out to the general public, offering tastings in shopping malls, for example. You have to remember that people have different tastes, and not everybody agrees with the experts, and this provides us with an added dimension," Álvarez says.
The 54-year-old is not alone in his task. Of the 28 cheesemakers in Madrid, both traditional and industrial, 11 have been set up in the last three years. What is happening? Has cheese suddenly become fashionable? "Totally," says the spokesman for Poncelet, a specialist cheese shop in the center of the Spanish capital. Its wooden shelves contain up to 130 different cheeses, depending on the time of year. "There is no single reason, but it has become a trendy product, both in Madrid
[where in 2012 more than 43 million kilos were consumed] and in the rest of the world. Consumers are increasingly knowledgeable, and have high standards," he says.
The team at Miraflores has a long day ahead of it. Silvia controls the speed at which the goats' cheese and whey is stirred; Alberto and Jesús are packing Peña Gorda for delivery to Barcelona; and Pablo has just left on a delivery run.
The seven workers organize themselves, taking care of every aspect of the process: from picking up the milk to distributing the finished product in Madrid, where 60 percent of its clients are based. The rest of the company's output is sold throughout Spain, and is exported to the United States, Finland and Portugal. "We are doing OK. Thanks to the experience we pick up every day, we have learned to do more with less and less effort, and to finish earlier," says José Luis.
The peak demand season is spring, but the warehouse already has close to 4,500 cheeses in storage, each weighing around 1.5 kilograms. José Luis opens the door to the drying room, where there are around 1,500 cheeses. The smell is, well, cheesy, but not unpleasant. "This is where we leave them for about a month, the time it takes the salt to reach the heart of the cheese." Most of them are piled up in plastic baskets containing six pieces. But those that have been here a few days, easy to recognize from the whitish color of their rinds, are laid out on the floor "so that the ones above do not drip down on them." Every day, one of the team checks on them and turns them over. It's the details that make artisan cheese different, says José Luis.
Francisco Castaño also understands that a quality product comes from attention to detail. He lives in Colmenar de Oreja, about 50 kilometers to the south of Madrid, an attractive, stone-built village already known for its wines and orange flans. He is the owner of Quesos Ciriaco, which has been making cheeses for the last half century, and is the oldest in the region. "Did you know that if there is a storm, the next day the cheese is acidic?" he asks while sipping on a glass of local wine in the bar two doors down from his house.
- Poncelet.A place of worship for Madrileño cheese lovers. Up to 130 varieties Iine its wooden shelves, along with specialist cheese products such as knives, books, dishes and storage jars. C/ Argensola, 27.
- Los quesos de L'Amelie. Aside from offering a selection of the best artisanal cheeses in Europe, this store organizes cheese and wine tastings. It also offers courses to allow the really serious to further understand the mysteries of cheese. C/ Torrecilla del Puerto, 5.
- La Fromagerie de Madrid. Located in the San Miguel market, now one of the capital's essential gastronomic stopoffs, this stall usually attracts a steady throng of cheese lovers to sample the delights to be found behind its counter. Plaza de San Miguel, s/n.
- La Boulette. Located in the traditional La Paz market in the upmarket Salamanca neighborhood, this recently opened outlet offers biscuits and jams alongside its fabulous range of cheeses. C/ Ayala, 28.
Cheesemaking is a family tradition, says Francisco, one that dates back to the first years of the last century, when his great grandfather Agustín, and his grandfather Francisco, began making cheeses for the family's consumption. "It was my father who set up the cheesemaking plant, back in 1958, the year I was born. I have learned everything I know from him," he says.
Francisco took early retirement from the bank where he worked, and now dedicates himself full time to the family business. Despite the passage of time, he still uses the same methods to make cheese as his grandfather did. "I pour in the goats' milk, whey, and a little salt. That's it. Nothing else." He says the secret of top-quality cheese lies in using only the best goats' milk. "It's all about the freshness of the milk. In some places they use frozen milk, which means that they then have to add chemicals to the process."
Unlike José Luis's operation, which occupies 900 square meters, and produces around 100,000 kilograms of cheese a year, Francisco's cheese is literally homemade. "Making cheese is lovely, one of the nicest things that has happened to me in my life. Each one is different," he says.
Last year, he and his business partner Julio produced around 20,000 kilos of cheese, all by hand. Francisco says that, with the exception of one customer in Málaga, the company only distributes in Madrid. Sadly, he is no longer allowed to mature his cheeses in the vast cave hewn under his property by his great-grandfather. "The health authorities won't let us use it any more," he says as we clamber down the 40 steps into its cool, damp interior. "It is a shame because you don't find the flora that is on the walls in a cold storage unit.
"In the old days, my parents had to bring each cheese down here by hand. Later on, we installed a small lift. Over here was where the salt was stored, and there was a cold water tank here where on very hot days they would store the milk to keep it fresh," he says.
Back in the Guadarrama mountains, the mist is finally breaking up. José Luis pulls out a cheese board. "Try this," he says, first breaking off a piece for himself. "Good, isn't it?" he asks as he munches contentedly, savoring the taste and the bouquet as though it were a fine wine.
He says the cheese is best accompanied by a glug of olive oil and a light sprinkling of slightly spicy paprika. "And of course a good glass of wine."
Outside, the wind has picked up, and it's bitterly cold. On warmer days, José Luis allows his neighbors' horses to pasture on the ground around the small lake he owns next to the warehouse for free, as long as their owners keep the land clean. "Sometimes, if we see that the water is drying up, we will pour in any clean water we have left over. We use the whey to feed the cows, which in turn provide us with milk: just another detail that makes what we do different," he explains with a smile.