Pungent and full-bodied, Cabrales cheese (in Spanish, queso de Cabrales) is a celebrated blue cheese produced in the Asturias region of northern Spain. A true artisanal cheese, Cabrales is made by hand in small batches under very specific conditions.
There are certain qualities that distinguish Cabrales among the blue cheeses of the world. No doubt several of these arise from the unique features of its geography of origin. Cabrales cheese is produced in only one locale in the world: in the village of Cabrales and its immediate surrounds, in the Spanish province of Asturia, high in the Picos de Europa mountains. Since the early 1980s, Cabrales cheese bears the “Denominación de Origen Protegida” (DOP) designation on its label, authenticating its pedigree.
The rocky mountainside in this region is difficult, rugged terrain. Thanks to water erosion, deep caves pit the limestone crags. It is in the damp, chilly depths of these caves that the ideal conditions for perfecting the renowned Cabrales blue cheese exist.
Dairy farmers of the Penamellera Alta Township, of which Cabrales is a part, use raw milk from their cows, and ewes and goats in the spring and summer, to make the cheese. Authentic Cabrales cheese is made according to the same techniques that have been used for centuries.
The caves in which the cheese cures for a period of two to six months are chosen carefully. They must be at the proper altitude, be facing north, sustain a relative humidity of around 90 percent, have a constant temperature of between 45 and 55 °F (7 and 13°C), and experience optimum air circulation.
Unlike other blue cheeses, which are injected with penicillium mold spores to create the veins of blue that run within, Cabrales cheese cures from the outside of the cheese inward. Once the individual cheeses, typically in five-pound wheels, are set to cure in the limestone caves, they are turned by hand occasionally, until the blue-green mold has permeated the paste, or the body of the cheese.
The interior of the finished Cabrales cheese is creamy and semi-firm, veined with blue, and stippled with small cavities. The yellow-brown rind is natural, sticky, and strong smelling. The flavor of Cabrales is superior to that of many other blue cheeses, and can be characterized as sharp, assertive, slightly acidic, and quite salty. It pairs well with red wine, fresh figs, grapes, sweet sherry, and dry sausages like salami.
Cabrales is an excellent blue cheese for melting over grilled or roasted meats. Mashed with a bit of unsalted butter or heavy cream, it is delicious served as a spread for baguette slices, crackers, or fruit.