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The origins

Cheese making goes back in Andalusia to the earliest of times. Ancient implements linked with cheese production have been found in excavations related to Tartessus culture. Classical civilizations were very fond of cheese. Ancient Roman shepherds curdled milk in the leaves of figs, thistles and other plants, later using the rennet from the stomachs of young animals such as goats, sheep and rabbits. The Arab civilization, of nomadic origin and originally closely linked with livestock grazing, also saw an important role in cheese.

In more recent times, it’s the pastors and social environment that have kept the artisan cheese-making craft alive in Cadiz. The manufacturing process began with straining the milk to remove impurities; then placing it near the fire for tempering, adding the necessary rennet and letting the milk sit near the fire until it thickened. Subsequently, the curd was put into the available molds, made of esparto or wood with holes, and then it was pressed by hand, compressing the mold to drain the whey. This mold, called a cincho (Spanish for girdle or belt) was a lace made of esparto or wood with holes like a belt, leaving an imprint of their ridges, called “pleita”, in what would become the rind. Finally, the pressed curd was salted and kept in a cool place.

Little has changed in the craftsmanship of these artisan cheeses today; utensils have evolved as, of course, have the phytosanitary requirements and hygiene conditions, but the processing techniques themselves are still quite similar to the traditional artisan system.

The territory

The mountains of Cadiz are home to the cheese production of the province, based mainly on goats and, to a lesser extent, sheep. The Natural Park of Sierra de Grazalema at the far west of the Cordillera Subbética, has the highest rainfall average in Spain. The mountains act as a bulwark against moisture-laden winds from the Atlantic Ocean. This causes heavy rains in the area, which favors the development of excellent winter and spring pastures. Vegetation of great value can also be found, such as Holm, Cork, and Algerian Oaks, Spanish Firs, Acebuches (wild olive trees) and river bush. This land, so natural, with low population and a beautiful trail of Pueblos Blancos (white towns), is where the local goats and sheep feed in total freedom. Livestock has a long tradition here, and is one of the cornerstones of the local economy.

The mountains of Cadiz extend south along the National Park of Los Alcornocales, which runs down to the Strait of Gibraltar. The park, with its hills and gentle Mediterranean climate and vegetation, is known for hosting the largest Cork Oak forest in Spain and one of the largest in the world, in an excellent state of preservation. Its lush forests, waterfalls, streams, trails of ferns, and meadows, also welcome herds of goats, providing excellent raw material for cheese production.

The autochthonous breeds of Cadiz

The Payoya goat has traditionally been bred in the area of what is currently known as the Natural Park of Sierra de Grazalema and Ronda. Also known as Montejaqueña, this breed is listed by the Spanish Ministry of Agriculture as a specially protected Autochthonous Breed. Raised in extensive or semi-extensive farming, feeding mainly on grasses in the area, it is perfectly adapted to its ecosystem and a key element in supporting sustainable land development. The breed’s milk makes delicious cheeses, with all kinds of vegetables nuances.

The origin of the Merina de Grazalema sheep is a cross between the Merino and Churro ethnic trunks. It is a very hardy sheep, well adapted to medium-altitude areas of high and intense rainfall. Raised in extensive farming, it is used in both the dairy and meat industry. Its milk has a high fat vale and a high percentage of protein, providing excellent quality cheese.

The Cheeses

Among the traditional cheeses of Cadiz we will cite Queso Grazalema (Grazalema Cheese). This is a very ancient, artisan type of cheese. It maintains the traditional braided marks of the cincho on the rind. It is an aged cheese, from semi-cured to cured (minimum one and a half months of curing), made from raw or pasteurized goat and sheep milk mixed together, often from the indigenous breeds mentioned. Animal rennet from lamb or young kid is commonly used. The cured cheese has a well formed rind, though somewhat unctuous and fatty, with an orange ocher color. The cut is a yellowish white color, compact, with small eyes, irregularly distributed. Pleasant aroma and strong flavor, slightly spicy in the more cured cheeses, slightly salty and buttery on the palate.

Also catalogued among the traditional cheeses of the province is Queso de Sierra de Cádiz (Sierra de Cadiz cheese). In earlier times it was made from raw milk, letting cheeses that were not consumed fresh cure, then preserving them in oil. It is a fatty cheese, with enzyme coagulation, produced with animal rennet. It has cylindrical shape with marks on the top and bottom from the entremijo (cheese making table), and of the pleita on de sides, with no rind. The cut presents a white color with few eyes, irregularly distributed. Its texture is soft and moist, somewhat firm and with little elasticity. Its scent is of low intensity and the flavor is lactic, slightly sweet and salty at once; moist, compact and creamy on the palate, with aromas of goat milk.

We’ll also mention the extraordinary range of Quesos de Cabra Payoya (Payoyo goat cheeses), which are being developed in the province in recent years, and continually receiving recognition and awards in major international competitions. The company Quesos Artesanos de Villaluenga has excelled in this success story. But they are not the only ones; the confidence in this type of cheese is spreading throughout the Sierra, resulting in new dairies that are also bringing prestige to this product. And they are not only made with Payoyo goat milk, but often a combination with milk from the Grazalemeña Merino Sheep, obtaining spectacular blended cheeses, also awarded major international prizes. There is also a very interesting range of cheeses from this indigenous sheep's milk, unblended.

The cheeses are usually semi-cured or semi-matured (at least 60 days of curing in a chamber) and cured or matured (at least 120 days). The variety and range in cured cheeses is ever-increasing. There are Payoyo goat cheeses, sheep cheeses or blends of both, covered with Ibérico pork lard, lard and wheat bran (called emborraos, a traditional preparation of this mountain area), with pimentón (Spanish paprika), pepper, rosemary, virgin olive oil... Some of these variants, such as lard and wheat bran (emborraos) or rosemary, are also made in sheep's cheese and the blended cheeses.

Other dairy products produced in the province are goat yogurt, some of it organic, and requesón (cottage cheese), obtained from goat's milk, which is excellent for spreading or as a base to prepare creams.

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