3,000 Cheeses and 30 Tapas in 3 Days

Jonathan Harris | January 2017

How in the world do you judge 3,000 cheeses? The logistics of tasting such a volume of cheese is mind boggling in itself. Do you chew and swallow all of those tasty morsels? Or do you spit the samples out like a wine connoisseur? Imagining both options gave me a bit of indigestion. 

Last November, I was selected to be a judge at the World Cheese Awards in San Sebastian, run by the Guild of Fine Food based in Gillingham, England. I was simultaneously thrilled at the honor and a little terrified at the responsibility. Of course Spanish cheeses are warmly familiar to me after a career of sampling amazing cheeses like delicate, creamy Tetilla from Galicia or the powerful Cabrales blue cheese from Asturias. Beyond Spain I had a passing knowledge of famous cheese like Gouda, Stilton and Roquefort. But what do I know about cheese like Taupinette Jousseaume from France or Forest Phantom from South Africa?

I promptly ordered the World Cheese Book and pored over the pages as I planned my journey to San Sebastian in the Basque Country. Chosen as the European Capital of Culture in 2016, San Sebastian (known as Donostia in the Basque language) is a gorgeous city right out of a fairy tale. In fact, the sandy shores of the beautiful curving Concha bay are protected by Castillo de La Mota, a castle perched above the old city. 

San Sebastian in its current form came to being during the Belle Époque period of the late 19th century when it was a summer destination for Spanish royalty. The city hosts three 3-star Michelin restaurants, incredible for a city with just over 400,000 inhabitants.

The restored old quarter is filled with lively bars serving pintxos, the Basque answer to tapas. Pintxos consist of a delicious bite of meat, seafood or vegetable beautifully prepared and presented on a piece of bread. Simply choose what you like and you pay when you are ready – very civilized! 

I recruited my wife Stacey to travel with me (not a difficult task!) and arrived soon after in San Sebastian. Jetlagged but none the worse for wear, we stopped at a bar for a restorative wedge of tortilla Española and a cold caña of beer. Feeling much better, we headed to the Kursaal congress center near the old town, a startlingly angular modern building that hosts the famous San Sebastian Film Festival, Spain’s largest. There we registered for the World Cheese Awards and met my old friend Iker Fernandez who had arranged the visit. 

Iker is a native Basque who now lives in New York with his family. He represents some of Spain’s finest food producers, including Arztai, a consortium of small scale farmers specializing in Idiazabal, the famous smoked sheep’s milk cheese of the region. He led us into a huge room already filled with thousands of cheeses sitting on white tablecloths, ready for the tasting in the morning. Every shape and color of cheese you can imagine sat there quietly, waiting for the morning when each would be cut, sniffed, nibbled and judged.

That evening we attended a welcome party at the old royal palace overlooking the Concha bay. As we arrived, a band of musicians in folk garb marched into the crowd, followed by men dressed in wild beastly costumes in the ancient local tradition. The local cheesemakers then welcomed us, passionately sharing their mission to protect the shepherds and artisan cheese producers of the Basque Country. I was particularly touched when some of the older cheesemakers passed on the torch to the next generation and a tall bearded man sang a beautiful folk song a cappella.

After the ceremony we were treated to a feast you could only find in Spain. There were tables covered with Spain’s finest cheeses: sharp aged Manchego, spoonable Torta del Casar and complex Payoyo to name a few. A line quickly formed next to the Joselito Jamón Ibérico de Bellota, where a professional carver expertly served fresh slices of this finest of all cured hams. As I walked out the beautiful glass doors to the back of the palace, my eyes opened in wonder at the biggest grilling pit I’d ever seen! Over a bed of hot natural charcoal sizzled at least twenty whole lambs on metal spits, filling the air with enticing aromas. The tender lamb was fall-off-the-bone tender and one of the highlights of our visit. 

The next morning I couldn’t wait to get to the cheese awards, despite the fact that my luggage was enjoying a separate trip to Portugal. I was lucky that my rumpled outfit would be covered with an apron for the event! At the Congress Center I mingled with a few of the cheese mongers, food writers, importers and cheesemakers that made up the 250 judge panel. Entering the cheese judging room my senses swooned at the dozens of tables covered with thousands of the world’s most amazing cheeses! From Istanbul to Oregon, from Norway to South Africa, cheesemakers had delivered their very best wheels, spheres and blocks of delicious cheeses for us to enjoy. How would we choose from such a variety?

Thankfully the organizers broke the tasting into bite-sized pieces, and I was assigned just one table of “only” 60 cheeses. I joined three other judges, including a dignified gentleman who was an artisan cheese maker, a warm and expressive cheese consortium representative and a focused and energetic gourmet food store owner. It turns out all of my preparation on world cheese names and locations wasn’t necessary: this would be a blind tasting focused on one question – is each cheese poor, good, great or exceptional? My team boasted decades of experience judging the texture, aroma, flavor and appearance of cheeses, we didn’t need to know the precise facts of each sample. This was going to be fun!

We gathered around our first cheese and got to business. Between samples we crunched on tart apples to clear our palates. Over two hours we sniffed, prodded, sliced and nibbled until we finally reached the other end of the table. Incredibly I did not collapse in a cheese coma or begin to bleat like a sheep. In the end we awarded a couple of dozen silvers and bronzes, a handful of golds and one super-gold to the best of our lot. I peeked at the label and the super-gold turned out to be a cheese called Maxorata Curado con Pimentón from the Canary Islands – a Spanish cheese won our table! I vowed to add this cheese to our selections and you will see it on La Tienda later this spring.

I said goodbye to my new friends and met Stacey and our export manager Jamie at the cheese trade show in a nearby part of the building. After tasting a few more cheeses, we watched a Basque woman fill glasses with sidra dispensed in a jet from the tap of a large wooden barrel. After downing this traditional hard cider in one gulp (I swear this is the local custom!), we set out to explore the old city of San Sebastian.

The sun was shining and the air was warm – not always so in the month of November in this coastal city. Astonishingly I found myself still hungry, so we walked through beautiful stone archways and entered one of the hundreds of pintxos bars in the area. We ordered glasses of Txakoli, a fresh white wine made just miles from the city, and snacked on grilled anchovies in a vinegar sauce, steamed clams with garlic and bites of sautéed bacalao. We received word that our errant luggage had arrived, so we made plans to meet Jamie and his wonderful wife Biki in a few hours for a proper pintxos bar crawl.

We reunited that evening. Jamie grew up in Idaho, home to a large Basque population, and ended up falling in love with a Basque woman, his wife Biki. Decades later, they live in Zarautz, just down the coast from San Sebastian. Jamie has been a part of La Tienda for over ten years, and it is always a pleasure to visit him in his adopted home. And we are in luck – Biki gives tours of pintxos bars as a part time job!

We begin at Gandarias, a traditional old town bar with stone walls and pillars. While the old town attracts a lot of foreigners, and we were clearly in that category, the bartender greeted us warmly. Soon we were feasting on Cocochas de Bacalao al Pil Pil (salt cod cheeks in a creamy parsley sauce), Alcachofas (whole roasted artichokes) and finally a plate of grilled fresh Anchoas (anchovies with garlic and parsley). These amazing dishes left us craving more, and we walked on to Cuchara de San Telmo. 

This tiny bar is proudly rough around the edges, with a bright artistic mural outside and barely enough room for twenty patrons standing shoulder to shoulder. We elbowed our way up to the bar and the chalkboard listed an amazing selection of pintxos. Between refreshing sips of Txakoli we shared plates of Cochina de Salamanca Asada (roasted suckling pig), Pulpo Gallego Asado (roasted octopus) and Oreja de Cerdo Prensado (roasted and pressed pigs hears). Every dish was a revelation and we shuffled back to the hotel wishing we could have tried every dish on the menu!

The next day we traveled into the mountains to visit one of the artisan cheesemakers that make the local favorite, Idiazabal. Like all of the farmers in the Artzai collective, he owns his own small herd of 300 sheep that were grazing next to the cheese workshop. Every day the ewes are milked and the cheese is formed into wheels for aging. I was struck by the passion and dedication of these Basque farmers to preserve their food heritage. The cheesemaker proudly offered samples of Idiazabal cheese and chilled bottles of sidra, which pair beautifully together. After scratching the enormous Basque sheepdog and her giant puppy, we headed back to San Sebastian for our last evening.

It was imperative that we head back for more pintxos after such a fun tour with Biki and Jamie the night before. We started at a pleasant modern bar with a caña of frosty beer and a plate of fried Gernika peppers. These fresh little green peppers are much like the more famous Padrón peppers of Galicia, except that they are always mild. After finishing our plate we couldn’t resist returning to the vibrant atmosphere of Cuchara de San Telmo. Stacey and I wedged ourselves between other enthusiastic patrons and surveyed the menu. We settled on Carrillera de Ternera (roasted beef cheeks), Morcilla de Pascal Massoualde (a local blood sausage) and Foie Gras a la parrilla washed down with glasses of Txakoli and Ribera del Duero.

In the morning our whirlwind came to an end, and we headed to the airport in Bilbao. I reflected on the fierce pride the people of the Basque region hold for their local food traditions and the lengths they are taking to protect these treasures. I could say the same of the people of Galicia or Andalucía or Cataluña. All of these regions of Spain have distinct cultures and even different languages, but they share a profound reverence for the quality and history of their local cuisines. And these great foods are democratically enjoyed, at tapas bars, pulperias, chiringuitos and mercados across Spain. Exceptional food is not reserved for fine dining – it is a part of Spain’s daily life.

And I am thankful to organizations like the Guild of Fine Food, which organizes the World Cheese Awards. Through their efforts, excellent cheeses from small communities can receive acclaim and reach a larger market, helping preserve local traditions in Europe and across the world. There is a broad movement now to support locally produced artisan foods. For me the word “locally” does not mean I can only buy cheese from a farm down the road from my house. Instead I am inspired to support small traditional producers no matter where they are located so they can continue to nourish the variety and character of local communities across the world.