Cheese is cherished by all lovers of good food. Although known for thousands of years, it is impossible to know how, where and by whom it was discovered. It is believed that cheese appeared when animals were first domesticated in Neolithic times. While we don’t know for certain where the first cheese came from, legend states that an Arabian merchant accidentally made cheese after setting out on a long journey through the desert with milk in a pouch lined with rennet attached to him. As he went through the desert, the milk separated into curds and whey, the former being the basic form of what we know today as cheese.
Founded some 3,000 years ago, Cádiz is believed to be the oldest inhabited city in Europe and archeological excavations have revealed objects used in the manufacture of cheese dating back to the Tartessians, the first known inhabitants of the province. The Tartessians, Phoenicians and Roman were great cheese lovers. Despite the trading skills of the Phoenician, it was the Romans who really developed cheese-making in the province. They improved manufacturing techniques and transportation. The milk was poured into the stomachs of baby goats, lambs, hares and chickens to set and then pressed and shaped in wicker or wooden molds.
Until relatively recent times, cheese was mostly produced at home for domestic use. Milk was strained and left by in the warm for a while, rennet added and the whole left next to the fireplace to set. It was then pressed by hand into wooden or wicker molds with holes to allow the whey to drain. Today the process is much the same, but on a far larger scale and with modern tools and much better hygiene.
There are six districts in the province (Sierra de Cádiz, Campiña de Jerez, Costa Noroeste de Cádiz, Bahía de Cádiz, La Janda y el Campo de Gibraltar), with cheesemaking concentrated in the Sierra de Cádiz.
Sierra de Grazalema
The unique climate and soil of the Parque Natural de la Sierra de Grazalema, it’s vegetation and good grass, are perfect for the flocks of sheep and goats. La Sierra de Grazalema combines altitude and the sea to produce a unique microclimate. Humid winds from the Atlantic cause condensation and, despite being the most southerly part of Spain, the area has the highest rainfall in the entire country. This leads to excellent and abundant pastures, especially during Winter and Spring. The lack of major infrastructure works and a relatively low population have resulted in unspoilt countryside where the flocks roam freely and produce milk of the highest quality.
La Sierra de Grazalema stretches through the Parque Natural de los Alcornocales (The Alcornocales Natural Park) to the Straits of Gibraltar. This extensive forest, with it’s vegetation, streams and small waterfalls is a perfect pasture for the goats and sheep which are later milked and give us cheese recognised as amongst the finest in the world.
The unique goat and sheep breeds that are native to Cádiz province give a flavour to the cheese that is very difficult to copy:
Cabra (goat) Payoyo or Montejaqueña, is probably the most notable. A goat of the countryside, not the farm, it adapts readily to humid winds and the changeable weather and is able to remain outside all year round, even living off the somewhat poor vegetation during Summer and then the green pastures of La Sierra de Grazalema the rest of the year. An dairy goat giving a good, high-quality yield, it is recognised by the Ministry of Agriculture as a unique, native and protected species. Payoya goat’s milk cheese has won numerous awards all over the world. Depending on the length of the curing process (120 days or 60 days) , the cheese can be mature (curado) or medium (semicurado). In the continued search for further improvement, some cheeses are produced using a blend of milk from the Payoya goat and the Merino sheep. Olive oil, rosemary, paprika, butter, wheat bran and other spices are also added.
The Merina sheep from Grazalema is a cross between the Merino and the Churro. With a high level of fat, it’s milk is perfect for the production of a cheese of exquisite flavour. As in the case of the Payoya goat, the Merina is perfectly adapted to the geography and climate of the area. Found all over the zone, it feeds mainly on the pastures of the Sierra de Grazalema National Park. Years ago the Merina outnumbered the Payoya, but no longer.
In the mid-1980s the Gago brothers created El Bosqueño (The Forester) cheeses, and the commercial production of cheese in the province of Cádiz began. Most cheesemakers in the area are small family businesses who also own and and milk their sheep and goats. The cheese is handmade in quantities limited by milk production. Payoyo, Pajarate, and the organic Gazul or Cabra Verde cheeses are the best known internationally.
The “Feria anual del Queso Artesanal” (Annual handmade cheese fair) has taken place in the town of Villaluenga since 2009. The town is the smallest in the province of Cádiz and it is also the highest.