The judges awarded the usual Bronze, Silver, and Gold ratings, with 88 Gold Label cheeses selected for the Super Gold rating. In the final stages of the Awards, a Super Jury of 16 judges representing the 250 judges selected the 16 best cheeses from among the Super Gold winners. Of those 16 cheeses, the cheese that won the most points was a goat cheese called Olavidia (photo 1). The black streak running through the center is olive-pit ash, which apparently has sterilizing and moisture regulating benefits. It probably brings to mind French chevre (goat cheese) or Morbier cheese for some of you. Perhaps its immediate appeal comes from its texture rather than its flavor.
This cheese is made in Guarromán, a small village with a population of less than 3,000 located in the foothills of the Sierra Morena mountain range in the province of Jaén, northern Andalusia, which is in Spain’s southwest. The cheesemakers are a young couple who had left the village for the city-life but then came back to their hometown to start up a brand-new cheese factory in 2017, so they could pass on to future generations the traditions of grazing goats in a natural environment, traditions their families had been keeping up over many generations. The ingredient for the cheese is milk that comes only from the makers’ 300 Malaga goats, a breed native to Spain. The family uses a method of mountain dairy farming where their goats graze in hilly country feeding on broom, thyme, acorns, olive leaves, and naturally occurring dried grasses, in the Sierra del Trigo (“Wheat Mountains”) near the village of Mures in the south of Jaén.
You can imagine from seeing the mother goats in photo 2 that Malaga goats are renowned for producing a lot of good milk. The olives used for the ash in the award-winning cheese are a specialty of the local province, Jaén, which is the world's largest olive producer and accounts for half of Spain’s olive crop. That is equivalent to 20% of global olive oil production. This shows how the makers’ approach is to use local produce as much as possible for their cheeses.
Made up of seven friends and family members, the world’s best cheesemaker has a heartwarming name: Quesos y Besos, or Cheeses & Kisses in English. On top of that, another of their cheeses was selected for the top 16 cheeses and rated sixth. Their Camenbeso is a type of goat cheese with white mold, like French Camembert (photo 3). Even if the host country did have an advantage, it is a spectacular achievement for two cheeses by the same cheesemaker to rank in the top 16 best cheeses in the world. European cheesemakers were dominant, with all but one of the other 14 being made on the continent.
The one cheese that put a dent in that European domination was a blue cheese called Hisui (“Jade”), an entry from Nagano prefecture. It took more than three weeks for the Japanese entries to be collected and inspected for export in Japan, then shipped, inspected for import into Spain (EU), quarantined, and transported to the venue before the judging began on November 3. In comparison, it took Quesos y Besos, for example, the maker of the number one and number six cheeses, about six and half hours (726 km via expressways) to send its entries in the competition from its factory to the venue. The maker of the 11th best cheese is Almnäs Bruk AB in Sweden, the farthest from the venue among the European makers whose cheeses were rated in the best 16, yet it still took about 30 hours (3000 km) by road for their cheeses to reach the venue.
It isn’t difficult to imagine how high the hurdles were for a participant from Japan, in the far East, when you simply consider the difficulties of transporting cheese to a contest where freshness, maturation period, and temperature changes have an effect. The Japanese cheesemakers overcame those handicaps to enter 37 cheeses and 14 won prizes, which proved to the world once more the high standard of Japanese cheese.
By the way, the cheese from Japan that was rated in the best 16 this year, Hisui (“Jade"), is a blue cheese aged with blue mold. Of the blue cheeses across the world, French Roquefort, Italian Gorgonzola, and British Stilton are said to be three most famous, but there is also an excellent type of blue cheese in the Principality of Asturias, where this cheese festival was held. It is called Queso de Cabrales (Cabrales cheese), after the municipality where it is produced. Cabrales cheeses won two gold labels, five silver labels, and one bronze label in this year’s Awards. Incidentally, the Cabrales area is 120 km east of Oviedo, the festival venue, which you can reach by car in one and a half hours.
Figure 1 here shows the locations of Oviedo city, where the festival venue is; the village of Guarromán, home to the maker of the champion cheese and another cheese rated in the best 16; the village of Mures, where the Malaga goats that give the raw milk for those cheeses graze naturally on hillsides; and the area with protected designation of origin for Cabrales cheese.
Makers of those three most famous blue cheeses I mentioned deliberately add the blue mold to them, but one of the characteristics of Cabrales cheese is that the blue mold grows inside it naturally. When the curds (coagulated milk, like okara [soy pulp]) are formed, they aren’t forcibly pressed into shape, but develop cavities inside and then bacteria that occur naturally in the caves where the cheese is matured grow inside those cavities, without the cheese makers deliberately adding any blue mold. The ideal environment, or should I say, the only environment where Cabrales cheese can be made, is in the naturally occurring caves of a region surrounded by the sheer limestone peaks of the Picos de Europa, situated about 1,500 meters above sea level. Inside these caves, humidity is 90% and the temperature ranges between 8 and 12 degrees Celsius throughout the year.
Apple cider (Sidra), white kidney bean stew (fabada), and Cabrales cheese are three main local specialties of which the Asturians are very proud and could be described as the three “sacred treasures” of Asturian identity. The intensity of feeling around Cabrales cheese is so strong that a contest is held in the region every summer. At the 48th Cabrales Cheese Contest held in 2018, a Cabrales cheese called Valfriu entered the Guinness Book of Records as the world's most expensive cheese when it was sold at auction for the exceptional price of 14,300 euros (1,716,000 yen), which is 6,085 euros (760,625 yen) per kilo. But then the following year at the 2019 Contest, a two-kg block of cheese called Arengas was sold at auction for 20,500 euros (2,665,000 yen), which is 10,250 euros (1,332,500 yen) per kilogram, far exceeding the previous year's record, making it the world’s most expensive cheese, and a sale price to celebrate.
In Japan, you can of course find numerous examples of such exceptional celebratory sales prices, prices that far exceed the market price, such as Itsukiboshi-brand snow crab for 5,000,000 yen per crab, or Real Bellota, a commercial brand of Spanish dry-cured ham available only in Japan costing 1,430,000 yen per leg.
I have always been a little obsessed with brands, and I have lived in Asturias, so I wanted to try some Cabrales cheese. Photo 4 shows what I found, the Valfriu* listed in the Guinness Book of Records in 2018 and now the second most expensive cheese in the world, which I bought on the internet, at the regular price of course. On the left is 250 grams of a special edition Valfriu, which is matured for six months in a cave and cost 8.75 euros (about 1,100 yen). On the right is 250 grams of the Valfriu that won the 2018 Cabrales Contest and cost 4.45 euros (about 600 yen). Although it doesn’t look at all like edible food and has a characteristic aroma that spreads throughout the room the moment you open the vacuum pack, a stink that a lot of people couldn’t bear, that aroma stimulates my appetite, but then I have a weakness for sun-dried kusaya (salted and fermented fish with a unique aroma) and stinky tofu. With its intense aroma and biting flavor, I couldn’t argue if I were told I have eccentric tastes.
* A Silver Medal-winner at the 2021 World Cheese Awards.