We often receive requests for the strongest cheese available. At this time that honor goes to a mixed-milk Cabrales. By far and away the most assertive cheese in our caves and a hard act to follow, this raw-milk, naturally-bluing-blue is to Spain, what Stilton is to England, what Roquefort is to France, what Gorgonzola is to Italy. These are all strong flavored cheeses but the latter three cheeses command a far greater market share, largely because they are much more “approachable.”
The Cabrales is the most artisanal in the mix not only because it is has limited production, unlike the others it acquires its blue mold spontaneously, and varies from one season to another. When produced in spring and summer (when the ones now in our caves were crafted) the mix of all three milks is included: cow, goat and sheep. Later in the year when the ewes dry off the mix switches to goat and cow milk only, then in the winter only cow milk is used. The milk that is used for Cabrales production in the winter months is provided by cows with a diet limited to hay and grains; in other words: they are not left out in the cold grazing on limited vegetation. As one would expect, the cheeses produced with all three milks when the vegetation is more lush yields a cheese with a much bigger flavor profile. Not to take anything away from the winter cheeses; they are “nicer.”
Perhaps that should be one’s first Cabrales experience – the “nicer” one, though no wallflower whatsoever.
People often want to believe that there will be a suitable wine partner for any old cheese that is before them. This one has just a few: a viscous, high-quality Pedro Ximenez sherry from the opposite side of Spain (the deep south); a superior aged Madeira; or an aged Sauternes. We also noticed that a fruit-forward new world Chardonnay or Cabernet Sauvignon worked okay. Interestingly, Tawny or vintage ports do not measure up, though they will present a valiant effort. The region where Cabrales is produced is not known for its wine production; this is a very recent agricultural enterprise. The beverage for which Asturias is known is cider. Apples thrive well in the region so the ciders have always been the locals’ favorite Cabrales partner.
I would recommend that you have one of the above beverages close at hand when you try a Cabrales the first time. The battleship gray color and fetid aroma should suggest an outsized gastronomic experience is on the way. A very small nibble is more than sufficient to get the idea across. The flavors ignite every taste bud, though not to an alarming level. Instead the flavor is more persistent than alarming. Water won’t help. After a few minutes the finish is actually rather pleasant, the flavor is still present but much more graceful, even a little sweet.
For those that want the strongest cheese in our caves, the Cabrales is the one. If you are choosing it only to impress others with your bravery you are missing the point. This cheese is one of the last of its kind; it should be respected for its unique qualities, its history, and its pedigree, as well as its above-average nutritional value. Just a little dab will do you though. If it is still too much to enjoy on its own, or accompanied by cider or one of the wines recommended above, you might try incorporating it into a sauce for a steak, or into a dressing for a salad. However you have it I am certain that it will offer a memorable experience.