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THE BOY THE CHEESE
AND THE QUINCE JELLY

Text By: Eric Canut
(The tale of the incorrigible cheese-eater)

Certain childhood memories last as if they were indelibly printed on our brains. One of my most vivid memories stems from when I was seven or eight, sometime in the sixties, in a distant mountain village where I used to spend the summers immersed in a world of smells, colors and sensations. Those three months every year, with the wealth of experiences they offered, seemed to last forever. Towards the end of one hot summer, a close relation asked my father if I could help in the harvest on a farm two kilometers from the village. This man, his son and I spent the next three days traveling to and fro with a line of ten donkeys, their side packs up to the brim with apples, pears, plums, quinces, nuts, almonds and hazelnuts. Our job was to keep the animals in line and make sure that none of them straggled. The precious cargo was carefully deposited in the attic of the family home where hopefully it would last the winter without rotting. We left everything in a jumble on the floor but, on our return from the next trip, everything had been perfectly laid out and ordered and a heady perfume of fresh fruit met us as we came in. The last day, all those who had helped in the harvest were invited to a celebration lunch. There were about thirty people around the table. I sat wide-eyed at one end, clutching the coin I had earned. The foods was plentiful and of the sort to satisfy hard-working men and women so I ate little, but then it was time for the last course and two dishes were placed just in front of me. One bore tablets of freshly made quince jelly of a dark mahogany color but shiny and slightly translucent with a grainy texture and a sharp, fruity aroma with a hint of cloves and cinnamon. Served with it were thin slices of ewes' milk cheese, with its characteristic, almost rancid smell. On the other dish was a lumpy, cheesy, snow-white mass swimming in whey and dotted with walnuts, raisins, almonds and hazelnuts. Amber-colored honey had been trickled over the top. As you can imagine, with these desserts I made up for my lack of interest in the main course and that was the day I discovered that cheese can be eaten in ways other than with bread for breakfast or as an afternoon snack. That memory has accompanied me over the years and I now see that the contrasting flavors of oriental cuisine are also to be found on our own doorstep where acid, sweet, salty and spicy flavors can get on surprisingly well together. And as an adult traveling around Spain I have frequently seen cheese served with quince jelly and fresh fruit and I have also noted that one of the desserts most often repeated on menus is requeson, mato or cuajada (curd or cottage cheeses), either alone or with honey, dried fruits or aniseed liqueur. Cheese, or rather cheeses, are part of the normal Spanish diet, and served mostly with breador as a tapa. All Spaniards relish the idea of a chilled fino sherry with a few slices of medium ripe ewes' milk cheese, preferably in a Seville bar. In Spain, cheese is more often served as a starter or aperitif than at the end of the meal as in' France.

A selection of cheeses is much more than a satisfactory substituted for an everyday meal. If the cheeses served are Spanish, preferably with a Denomination of Origin, then properly partnered, they can amount to a real feast-with good fresh bread, red wine, fresh and dried fruit, raw and toasted nuts, and fresh, Young vegetables such as celery, carrots, radishes, red peppers and young zucchini.

Our suggestion would be a selection of five Spanish cheeses with five D.O.s, cheeses that can be found on the international market-Tetilla, Majorero, Manchego, Idiazdbal and Cabrales. This order would be the right one for tasting-from the mildest to the strongest. Allare made with whole milk so they are full-fat cheeses and highly nourishing! The first is the typical Galician Tetilla so named because of its shape-a slightly flattened breast with an unusual sort of nipple. Made in the northeast of Spain in Galicia, the part the Romans called Finis Terrae, it is mild, sweetish, creamy and melts in the mouth. Its slight sharpness combines with the aroma of fermented butter. It goes very well with thick bread, ideally from a loaf made of corn flour. The second, Majorero, is new amongst the constellation of D.O. cheeses. It comes from the island of Fuerteventura in the far southeast of the Canaries and is made exclusively from goats' milk, a thick and aromatic milk from animals that graze on the thin grasses growing in this semi-desert area where most of the Moisture comes from the marine breezes blowing off the Atlantic. It is a semi-ripened cheese of pressed paste, containing all the flavor of goats' milk and leaving the persistent aftertaste of walnuts and dried fruits given by its ripening process. In the Canaries, it is usually eaten with the classic papas armgadas (potatoes boiled in their jackets) or with thick white unsalted bread. Halfway through our cheese board we come to Manchego, the best known of the Spanish cheeses and the one that sets the standards for cheese making in Spain. It is made of pure ewes' milk from the Matnchego sheep and should be medium ripe to ripe, well pressed and with the whey removed. The flavor is intense and mature, creamy in the mouth and slightly piquant with a touch of salt and the powerful aromas of ewes' milk.

For a recommendation as to how to eat it, what better than to copy the example given in Don Quijote de la Mancha and eat it with bread freshly baked in a wood oven with a young, fruity red wine. Next we come to a farmhouse cheese that is much prized by a region famous for its food and home to the best restaurants in Spain: Idiazabal is one of the hallmarks of the Basque Country. It is a ripe cheese traditionally made for keeping and normally smoked. A thin slice placed between the tongue and palate will reveal its piquancy and slight bitterness (from the lamb's rennet), its aroma of beech, birch and hawthorn wood and its persistent sharpness. In its homeland, it is traditionally washed down with a good Rioja or, more recently, with cider in one of the many local cider bars.

Finally, the most powerful and well-defined of the Spanish cheeses. A classic from the Asturian Mountains where it matures in high caves aired by the cold, damp and salty winds from the Bay of Biscay.  Cabrales is a cylindrical, medium-sized cheese, produced by hand in small quantities in the Asturian part of the Picos de Europa National Park. It is a blue cheese that is so creamy it can be spread, with a sticky rind and a penetrating smell. It is a cheese for connoisseurs and lovers of mature, full flavors. Spread a little on a slice of fresh toast or serve it with cider or an oak-aged white wine; or try it with a generous, sweet, thick wine like Pedro Ximenez. The result of our cheese board is a full meal with five varieties of cheese (we will probably have eaten between a hundred and a hundred and fifty grams of cheese), different types of bread, a selection of fruit and fresh vegetables and at least a couple of wines-white crianza and young or crianza red. And that's where my story ends!

Entic Canut is an agricultural engineer specialized in dairy farming who has devoted most of his professional life to the world of cheese. He has published two books on the subject and bas been a regular contributor to publications specializing in gastronomy for more than a decade.

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