You might not think it from the contents of this blog, but we are big fans of cheese. In fact, the only post on the subject of cheeses was written back in June and even then it only really dealt with cheese in brief, offhand kind of way. However, nothing could be further from the truth. We are big, big fans of cheese and like many other foodstuffs, we eat far too much of it.
The lack of a cheesy profile on this blog is probably caused by the fact that cheese isn’t something that we use as an ingredient very often. Most of the time, we consume cheese unadulterated and alone (well, by itself, rather than us eating cheese in solitary confinement…) except for a glass of wine and the occasional touch of jam or chutney on the side. Indeed, I still believe that given the amount of time, energy and care that goes into the creation of delicious, artisanal cheeses, it is almost wrong to do anything to the cheese except accompany it with good bread and wine.
Of course, there are cheeses and then there are cheeses. Limburger, a ripe tallegio or a stinking bishop are examples of the latter kind. The dairy equivalent of a “big wine” – think barolo or barbaresco. Big. Blue cheeses are often afforded this kind of reverence, and often, in my mind, it’s unwarranted. Roquefort is unquestionably delicious and does have a tang to it, but it’s not a big cheese. Stilton and gorgonzola are also powerful blues but again, are usually less impactful than you are led to believe.
Mario Batali’s oft-heard phrase about parmigiano-reggiano – that it is the “undisputed king of cheeses” – is, in my humble opinion, not fair to the many less well-known cheeses out there, and, quite apart from that, it’s just simply not got the character of a real hardcore, stinker of a cheese. Spanish cheeses, particularly manchego, and to a lesser extent, zamorano, are becoming better known and more popular in the US, but these, while excellent in their own right, are not big cheeses.
Enter cabrales. This is the big cheese you’ve been waiting for. In his excellent, funny and almost unbelievably epic book Clear Waters Rising, which records his walk through all the mountain ranges of Europe from north-west Spain to Istanbul (he walked non-stop for nearly 17 months), Nicholas Crane describes eating cabrales thus:
After a few mouthfulls I had a numb nose and a locked epiglottis… (and) I was woken in the morning by a gangrenous pillow.
Cabrales is a crumbly, grey cheese made from a mixture of cow, goat and ewes’ milk that is left to mature in caves in tiny mountain villages in the Picos de Europa in the far north of Spain. The combination of the three types of milk and the aging/maturing process creates a cheese that, according to Crane, is “the world’s most extreme example of lactic putrefaction.”
Hardly an appetizing prospect, huh? Well, yes and no. Of course, it’s a matter of taste, but me and my wife happen to like it and particularly enjoyed it served in what might be to some palates, the world’s, or at least Spain’s, most extreme tapa/pincho – spread thickly on a round of crusty bread and topped with, wait for it, salted anchovies.
In spite of my appetite, the olfactory assault of the cabrales and anchovies was still something else and I’m glad I was sharing it with my wife, otherwise I doubt I would have escaped without getting seriously high. The sheer tanginess of the cheese really does numb the roof of your mouth and almost instantly clogs your nasal passages. This, combined with the saltiness of the anchovies, caused all moisture in my mouth to instantly disappear. Fortunately, timely introduction of beer to the equation (the delicious and ubiquitous Mahou), loosened things up and made chewing and swallowing possible again, after which the cheese’s enormous and wonderful aftertaste took over, causing me to break out into a sweat. As I said, this is not a lightweight cheese, nor is it a cheese for lightweights – you have to suffer a little while you enjoy it.
Sadly, we didn’t come across cabrales again during our tapas-hunt in Madrid, but next time we make a trip to the cheese store, I’ll be investing in some, and, just as a precaution, a waterproof cover for my pillow. I would encourage you to give it a try, but be careful, it’s a bit of an animal.
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