Dave in the Cabralese cheese tasting line.
The extent of my exposure to blue cheese had been in salads or in salad dressing. I had no intense passion for cheeses. In fact, if you asked me before I visited Cabrales, I would have thought cheese festivals were snobbish ways for old people to spend days gossiping behind each other’s backs while pretending to be cultured.
Dave—my best friend and travel partner throughout college—and I were in Spain for a month. We did some sightseeing, but mainly ate and drank our way through Madrid, where we stayed with Dave’s Spanish roommates whom he had known from a visit two years previously. This was our last summer before the “real world” kicked in and we started working, so naturally we were restless and eager to get out of Madrid after the first week. Dave suggested the Asturias region in the north, and we read up on it in our 5-year-old library-borrowed guidebook, which was more of a collection of colorful photographs than practical guidance. Only one sentence in it indicated anything about Cabrales. The book noted that the annual cheese festival in Arenas de Cabrales, a town of 800 people, was held the last Sunday in August. That was in four days away. Upon reading this, Dave proclaimed, “We’re going.”
“Umm, okay,” I replied warily. “What’s with Cabrales? Where are we staying?
How are we getting there?”
We were 22-year-olds on a tight budget, and my skepticism about finding accessible and inexpensive hostels and transportation in this rural northern region was met by his steadfast resolution to attend the festival. However, because this was “Dave week,” when he decided our itinerary, the best I could counter with was via a hesitant nod, taking a backseat to his whimsical planning.
Through a myriad of transport modes and transfers—a plane to Santander, a train to Oviedo, and a bus that detoured in Gijon—we arrived at a monastery converted into a hostel in Cangas de Onis, the launching point for Cabrales, where we spent the night. In the morning, we bought bread in preparation for a day of cheese. A bus took us on a 2-lane country road that wound its way through the Asturian countryside, under the shadow of the Picos de Europa mountain range. The congestion began promptly at the sign announcing our arrival in Arenas de Cabrales. It was late morning, and hundreds of buyers and tasters were milling around the large open-air tent, encircled by about 25 Cabrales cheese booths. Dave took the reins. “You go clockwise,” he commanded, “I’ll go in reverse.” Our experience of the festival began.
This was not the cheese festival I envisioned. No well-dressed older couples were sticking their noses at me. All lovers of Cabrales cheese reveled in this annual tradition, the XXXIX Festival del Queso de Cabrales, or the 39th Cabrales Cheese Festival.
Cabrales is not your commercial, mass-produced blue cheese. It is like beer from a local microbrewery in its craft and attention, but world-class as a product. The taste is too unique and strong to create any potential demand for mass consumption, even if the producers decided to go that route, which they do not. The cheese production is family-run, family-owned, and generations old. The festival gave off such a local and neighborly aura that I would not be surprised if the goats and sheep—from whose milk the cheese is made—had been inbred for decades. The cheese-producing entities are unflappably permanent. When external economic forces bring down the last of the corner pharmacies, small cattle ranches and independent bookstores, Cabrales will endure. For any corporation that even wanted to buy up Cabrales, the profits may not be great enough, the market may not be big enough, but above all, the passion, livelihood, and definition of the entire community is Cabrales cheese. The community would never part with it.
I wedged my way between two couples debating the merits of a cheese far across the room and Number One’s cheese, presented in front of me. A young girl, no older than 13, who I took to be Number One’s daughter, gave me my first sample. She cut a thin slice off of the cumbersome wheel with a wieldy 10-inch blade, and offered the knife in my direction. I slid the sliver off the knife with my pinky, mimicking the man next to me. Most blue cheeses are sticky, but Cabrales is especially so—to the point where after multiple licks of my fingers, I could only clumsily pick out a bill from my wallet to pay for the necessary bubbly water. I was unsure whether to suck or chew on the semi-soft substance, so I rolled it around the inside of my mouth, coating it with a thick layer of Cabrales. The girl raised her eyebrows and let out a high-pitched questioning grunt, as if to say, Good, eh? I nodded and smiled in approval. It was divine.
I picked up a brochure that described the process of Cabrales cheese-making. The distinguishing feature of production is that Cabrales is cured in caves. They let it sit in the caves for months. By using the naturally-formed uneven topography of the adjacent Picos de Europa, Cabrales is truly one of a kind. It tasted like it had been kept under containment, like a genie in a bottle, only to unleash its full power when released. Pungent is a euphemism. The coating that was stuck to my mouth didn’t leave. I drank some bubbly water, trying to cleanse my palette for the next tasting. The cheese still lingered, the fresh mountain air only implanting it further into my taste buds. I breathed in Cabrales. I breathed out Cabrales. This was not an unpleasant feeling, except that I wanted to be able to taste the next cheese!
Cheese booth Number Two was run by a dairy farmer straight from the “How to Look like a Dairy Farmer” guide. He was a portly, balding man with a wide, welcoming smile; if he donned an American Green Bay football jersey he could have passed for a lifelong Wisconsinite and a diehard Packer fan. Eye contact was all that was needed to signal the same knife-to-pinky-to-mouth maneuver. His booth was more popular than Number One’s, and he had moved on to the next sampler before he could watch for my reaction. Alas, I could not tell the difference between Number Two’s cheese and Number One’s. I was hoping to rank my favorite cheeses; I knew Dave with his culinary experience superiority would be telling me which ones to try, and I had to have a comeback.
I sulked over to booth Number Three. To my delight, here I could tell a difference, Number Three’s cheese had a duller flavor. I thought maybe it had been taken out of the cave too early because the farmer was eager to get it to the market. It struck me briefly that it could have been intentional for the purposes of generating a more subtle Cabrales. However, the characters and personalities in the tent led me to believe that they followed the mantra: the moldier, the better.
I traipsed along from booth to booth, clockwise as instructed, finding each Cabrales variation only slightly distinctive until I reached booth Number Eight. The owner was a slick looking grey-haired man wearing a white-striped blue button-down shirt tucked into his aqua light green pants. He exuded perfection. I put my pinky to my lips and rejoiced in my favorite Cabrales of the day. The cheese expelled an overpowering sweetness to battle the more traditional Cabrales pungency. I exhaled in glory.
“El mejor!” His cheese was the best, I told him in Spanish. Recognizing my accent, perhaps, he asked me where I was from. “America,” I responded.
“Ah, America. Los Angeles Lakers, my favorite!” he joked in English with a hearty chuckle. I had gotten this before—he Spanish superstar Pau plays for the Lakers—but from a dairy farmer in rural Spain, a reference so close to home threw me for a heavier than usual laugh.
Finishing off my half of the tent’s circle, I concluded that what I tasted in booth Number Eight would be the cheese I would speak of to Dave. I spotted his 6-foot five frame above the crowd, as he stood in line for his final tasting. Before I could get to him, the crowd started to disperse toward the outer edges from the center of the tent. Drummers looking like they belonged in a Celtic college marching band came to the center to play. They yielded to dancers, similarly dressed and performing a jig-type dance. I later learned Asturias has a considerable Celtic influence from the ancient Astur people. This apparently was a prelude to the award presentation, which would commence in 15 minutes.
Let the Cabralese cheese festival celebration begin.
I waved to Dave from across the tent. We gave hand signals to each other, and I pointed to Number Eight’s booth, while he motioned toward two of his favorites. Ten pinky slivers of the dense cheese were far too much, but this was the Festival of Cabrales! I snaked my way through the crowd and sampled his two recommendations. At one booth, I met the host of Number Fourteen, a jolly, Santa Claus-esque man whose cheese was remarkably unique. It had a sour, almost grapefruit flavor, like it had almost given up in the cave before being resuscitated to be marked for consumption.
Dave and I reconvened after the dancing finished. Still holding our long baguette from Cangas, there was clearly a need for more Cabrales. I saw from his stern expression that he would be distraught if we did not buy one of his cheeses. I did not even argue; I have traveled with him too much to know his preferences regarding food are far more serious than mine. He cried after leaving our favorite pizza place in Croatia. Plus, it was “Dave week.” We bought a sizeable block of Number Fourteen’s cheese.
People crammed into the tent for the ceremony. The emcee recited the obligatory thanks for the festival to the sponsor bank CajAstur and to the event organizers. He then announced the “Xana,”whichin Asturian mythology meant a beautiful nymph. A gorgeous, cheery young woman with long blonde hair, a silk dress and a sash appeared from backstage and took a curtsy. A gorgeous, cheery young woman with long blonde hair, a silk dress and a sash appeared from backstage and took a curtsy; maybe Cabrales’s xana was like a homecoming queen from my upbringing in the U.S.
After what seemed to be some honorary, predetermined awards presented to various members of the Cabrales cheese community, a pause was taken for the cheeses and trophies to be brought forth. Fourteen wheels of cheese were lined up downstage with 3-digit numbers attached to them, and what appeared to be 14 various trophies were placed on a table upstage. What 14 awards could be for, I had no idea. Tastiest? Most filling? Smoothest?
Presenting the Cabralese cheese winners.
The emcee came back to the mic. “The fourteenth ranked cheese, from Carreña…” One farmer lumbered up to the stage, kissed the xana on both cheeks, took the trophy resembling a bear and posed for a photo with the head of the Cabrales cheese producers association with a broad grin. He didn’t seem to care he got fourteenth place. Dave and I shook our heads at the absurdity of the situation: it would take an hour to count down the 14 best cheeses. It reminded me of the beginning of a torturous college football bowl month. The Papajohns.com Bowl is almost a farce because of its title, until you notice the seniors playing their hearts out and the winning coach doused in Gatorade to celebrate the successful end of a season.
The trophies continued to be given out, which were various hoisted metal objects ranging from some ancient knight to a saucer to a scroll. Each winner was dressed as you would expect a dairy farmer to dress up for his or her most important day of the year: in vibrant, trim outfits which may have been overgrown in recent years, but still capable of being wrestled into. They accepted their awards, one by one, most unsure of where to stand and how to act. One man came up and stood facing the applause, hands by his side, and quizzically peered at the crowd, wondering what the fuss was about. None had a stage presence, which made them real. I could visualize my father, unaccustomed to the public eye, as one of the dairy farmers stumbling up stairs and awkwardly being led around to do his various onstage duties.
Presentation to the Cabrales cheese winner.
My favorite, Number Eight with the aqua light green pants, finished sixth. Number Fourteen’s cheese, which we purchased, went right after in fifth place. Finally, the aforementioned head of the Cabrales producers association announced the winner. I didn’t recognize him; it was too hard to match the cheeses with the faces, especially when members of the family were involved with the tastings. He pumped his fists upward in victory and embraced the xana. Then it was announced that his winning cheese wheel had received an auction price of 3,075 Euros, or over US$4,000. The applause shook the tent as the strutting buyer, whose walk reminded me of a Russian oligarch, took the cheese wheel and posed with his new Cabrales prize.
In conclusion, the emcee introduced the two rival political figures of the Cabrales municipality and they embraced each other.
“… For today, we forget about our conflicts and differences,” he declared, “and celebrate our commonality of the best cheese in the world: queso de Cabrales.” Dave and I again glanced at each other in disbelief. With the population of the municipality just over 2,000, the bitter conflicts that ensued throughout the year couldn’t have been too upsetting.
The warm moment gave way to a warm afternoon, and we retired to a shady grassy spot next to a calm brook. Naked toddlers rolled around near the shore and several families surrounded us, also picnicking. Everybody ate Cabrales and bread. I recalled the memories of my California hometown’s various community fairs and events. Downtown would be blocked off for festivities, and families would seek out the park for a breather from the hubbub. It could be any town in the world, brought together by a common music, art or theme that made families leave their houses for a day and form this intangible concept of a community. I listened to the sounds still coming from the cheese tent. I imagined the winner drinking to the fourteenth place finisher. “Congratulations on the Papajohns.com Bowl,” he would say. And he would mean it.
Here I was on this quest to see the world and ‘get cultured’ before it was too late. Of course, we had gone to the Prado, in Madrid, and saw the Alhambra in Granada. The sunburned tourists spoke English, were immersed in their guidebooks and appreciated, or at least I thought they were appreciating, the art and culture in front of them. I thought the museums and such were interesting and attractive, but attached no meaning to these places. Was I missing something? Was I not capable of identifying with other cultures?
But what was my own culture? I could not share my unique upbringing and enthralling story to those I met, because I did not have one. You could say I was raised “normal.” I realized then that the way to “get cultured” and to relate to other lands and other people was to find similarities. My homecoming queen and their xana. My Wells Fargo and their CajAstur. My tennis trophies and their cheese trophies. My family and their family. Maybe I didn’t value Spanish art, comprehend Spanish history or appreciate Spanish architecture like I should have, but that day I understood Spanish people. They were just like me.