Remote Valley of Roman Mines and Living Cheese

Jonathan Harris | September 2021

As the bus rumbled up the narrow road through the towering Picos de Europa, the riders were getting restless. After a morning of meetings, this group of gourmet food buyers and journalists was herded onto the bus with no time for food or a bottle of water. I was sitting next to a German store owner named Gunther who asked loudly if there were any snacks on the bus. He ended with a plea: “But no more f**cking sidra!”

We were in the heart of Asturias, the gloriously remote mountainous region at the very top of Spain. And we had partaken in plenty of the local sidra. Gunther’s colorful comment aside, I had grown fond of this sharp cider. Tart and low on carbonation, this wasn’t the cloyingly sweet, fizzy cider Gunther preferred. Following ancient tradition, servers at the local tavern lifted the sidra bottles high in the air and poured a thin stream into a flat-bottomed glass, creating a frothy portion. We then tossed back the cider in one gulp.

Miles away from Madrid and Barcelona, Asturias is lightly populated and far from glitzy modern Spain. Ancient traditions and ways of life can hide in the steep valleys and mountain passes. Sidra is a great example. For millennia, this remote area had little access to Spain’s wine regions, and grapes did not thrive in the area. So, the Celts and Visigoths introduced apples and fermented them to make sidra. This tasty, healthy beverage was essential in a time when water could not be trusted. To this day, sidra is the national drink of Asturias.

Our bus wove down a steep road into a gorgeous valley of verdant hills surrounded by craggy peaks. We had arrived at the small village of Cabrales. We tumbled into the parking lot in front of a museum dedicated to the famous blue cheese that carries the town’s name. The museum was actually a large cave, representing the remote mountain caves where Cabrales is typically aged. It was covered with multimedia exhibits, with not a real cheese to be seen.

As the group filed in, my host Alejandra tapped my shoulder and quietly escorted me and my colleague Jamie into a waiting car. She whisked us away, explaining that we were going to see the real thing. I was thrilled!

We rolled across an ancient bridge over a mountain stream. Looking up through the window I saw a cow perched on an impossibly steep hill, munching on beautifully green grass. We passed through the stone village and climbed a narrow street into the hills above. The car stopped on a ledge, and I saw a blue metal door built into the side of a mountain. Later I learned that many Cabrales cheese caves are so remote that the cheeses must be carried for over a mile along steep mountain paths.

The cheesemaker greeted us and unlocked the door, leading us into a dark, damp cave. More like a tunnel, the cave was about eight feet wide and tall. The walls were covered with moldy cobwebs and the ceiling dripped with thousands of tiny stalactites – this was no museum showcase! Shelves stood on either side of the cave, holding hundreds of wheels of cheese. 

Our host explained that the cave was actually a mine, chiseled by the Romans thousands of years ago. After it was abandoned, it became the ideal place to preserve and age cheeses. Before refrigeration, making cheese was one of the only ways to preserve milk for later use. The traditional way of preserving Cabrales cheese consisted of blending cow’s milk with goat’s and sheep’s milk and forming it into wheels. After two weeks of drying, the cheeses are transferred to one of the local caves that have a constant temperature of about 50 degrees, which keeps the cheeses fresh and cool as they age. They are placed on wooden shelves known as talameras, where they are periodically turned and cleaned. 

Coincidentally, the limestone caves are very humid and the perfect environment for penicillium molds. That was why the walls and even the cobwebs were covered in blue mold! Not surprisingly, the cheeses are quickly covered in this beneficial mold, which penetrates them with blue veining. Cabrales is one of very few blue cheeses that are naturally inoculated with penicillium. I noticed that each cheese was a different thickness, some were squat and bulging, others tall and straight. The cheesemaker explained that the cheeses were alive, slowly transforming as the mold grew within, so naturally each had its own shape.

After three to six months the cheese is ready to be eaten. Bold and extremely sharp, Cabrales has rightly taken its place at the pinnacle of the cheese world. In fact, a cheese from the Valfríu cheese factory set a Guinness World Record in 2020 when it sold for $16,142.41 at auction!

Leaving the cool, dark cave I blinked in the sudden brightness of the October morning. I felt like I had just experienced a profound food revelation. In our modern world, food is presented to us precisely cut and uniform, encased in plastic and ready for consumption. But for most of history we have interacted with food that is organic in shape and changing in appearance all the time. Nature does not present nourishment in hygienic rectangles. Stepping out of the cobweb covered cave filled with living breathing cheeses was just the opposite of the world of industrial foods.

Asturias will always be close to my heart, a refuge from the exciting but homogenizing progress of Spain’s modern economy. It also reminds me that Spain is home to an amazing variety of food traditions and landscapes that I can’t wait to discover and explore.