Friday, April 20, 2007

A Good, Ugly Cabrales

I first tasted Cabrales, a blue cheese from the Asturias province on the northwest coast of Spain, in culinary school. It was during our first term, and we’d had a vegetable tasting and a milk and butter tasting in recent memory. The student’s palate is an extraordinary thing. I had been a competent home cook and entertainer, trained for 29 years by my mother (an excellent cook) and copious cookbooks before I studied professionally. But with the opening of my palate came a willingness to reassess everything I knew.

I tasted tomatoes as though for the first time, noticing their acidity and texture anew. I thoughtfully rolled heavy cream around on my tongue, and I nibbled nubs of butter until I understood the difference between fat percentages. Curly parsley, I was shocked to discover, often had more flavor than its more popular flat-leaf cousin, despite what the gourmands-at-large had to say about its kitsch 1950s exterior.

The results were disastrous. My cream soup was inedibly salty, and my beurre blanc looked like an oil slick. Fortunately, I was not the only one, and my new tendency to over-salt was supposedly a sign of good things to come.

The reeducation of my palate, though, entailed no less than forgetting everything I’d thought I knew about cooking. It felt like learning to walk all over again.

Imagine then the shock to my virginal system when I popped a shard of Cabrales into my mouth at the end of our cheese tasting class. I really hadn’t thought I was able to taste anymore after a full night of stuffing myself with Feta, Camembert, and Manchego. But here was Cabrales, something I had never encountered before.

The veining was almost purple, and the texture was far crumblier than the creamy Roquefort and Gorgonzola I’d had so many times. And the flavor! It burst in my mouth with a shower of citrus and sweet hay. Then came smoke, chocolate, nuts, and an almost unbearable itch. My mouth was burning – whether from the complex arc of flavor or from the high levels of bacteria, I have no idea. The sensation passed and left only a strong desire for more. My chef instructor noticed a kindred spirit behind my excited munching, and he let me take a block of the stuff home that night in my knife roll.

Since then I have been a true devotee of the cheese. It is made from a blend of cow’s, sheep’s, and goat’s milk, and the salt of Roquefort and Gorgonzola is nowhere to be found, save the rind. Steven Jenkins, cheese guru, writes that the best Cabrales is made with spring and summer milk, which means that the winter months offer the finest cheese. I just bought this piece, and it's heaven - as long as the center of the wheel hasn’t turned to gray paste, you’re fine. Just remember that, as my friend Brian the cheesemonger told me, unless it's wrapped in foil or plastic, it's not a true appellation Cabrales.

Try alone on a clean palate to get the full effect, but afterwards, enjoy with strong red wine or sherry. I'm having the cheese in the photograph with a dab of fino as we speak.


Anonymous said...

This is already my favorite food blog!

Anonymous said...

What's the difference between Cabrales and Picon?

Figs, Olives, Wine said...

Thanks for your question. It can be almost impossible to tell the two apart, as they're virtually identical! I've often seen them mislabeled. As I understand it, the differences are slight. Cabrales is made in Asturias, and Picón (sometimes called Picos de Europa) is made in Cantabria. While Cabrales is made of a mixture of cow's, sheep's, and goat's milk, Picón is often made only using cow's milk. And finally, both fall under the denomination Quesos de Liébana, but Picón may be wrapped in oak, maple, or sycamore leaves, while Cabrales shouldn't be in anything other than foil or plastic. Hope this helps.
Thanks, Amanda

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