TAGS:Tags: Cheese Shop, Cheeses from Extremadura, Finca Pascualete, Gourmet Cheeses, Torta of Trujillo Cheese
A famous country estate in Extremadura has taken to producing a range of sheep’s cheeses which, thinks Paul Richardson, are some of the best in Spain.
Nothing sells a product like a good yarn. If the background to the brand in question includes a grand country estate, a fine romance, and an aristocratic family stretching back centuries, the advantages in marketing terms are as clear as daylight. And if the story also has a whiff of mystery and/or a touch of Hollywood glamour, so much the better.
All these elements are present in the story of Pascualete, a finca outside Trujillo on the plains of central Extremadura which has recently begun marketing a remarkable range of artisan cheeses. The dairy sheep whose milk is used for these cheeses are the fortunate inhabitants of a 4000 hectare finca – one of the the largest private properties in the region if not in the whole of Spain – which has been in the same family for close-on 800 years, though the finca’s spectacular palacio probably dates back to Roman times.
Juan Figueroa, 34, Pascualete’s current MD, is the latest scion of a family saga that kicks off in 1232, after a military operation to oust the Moors from the territory of what is now Extremadura. Juan’s distant ancestor the Count of Torre Arias, Grande de España, was one of the noblemen who claimed a chunk of local land in return for his contribution to the campaign.
Fast forward to the late 1940s, and Juan’s grandfather, Luis Figueroa y Pérez de Guzmán el Bueno, Count of Quintanilla, meets a young American woman called Aline Griffiths, who turns out to be a CIA secret agent, trained in the use of parachute and pistol. The aristocrat and the spy embark on a whirlwind romance, in the course of which the Count takes Aline to see his rambling, seldom-visited estate in t
he wildest reaches of Extremadura. She falls in love with Pascualete and its atmosphere of a ‘medieval country house’ where the shepherds still live in huts and cultivation methods have changed little in a thousand years. The Count and Countess of Romanones, as they become known, decide to make their life here – but not before the young American has put the crumbling palacio to rights. There is more than a touch of Hollywood romance about the tale, and it hardly comes as a surprise to learn that HBO, the TV production company behind The Sopranos and Six Feet Under have snapped up the rights to 91-year-old Aline’s life-story. (I can see it now : ‘Out of Extremadura’…)
The tale that Hollywood won’t be telling, however, is the one about how the cheeses of Pascualete came into being. The estate’s vast extensions of dehesa, the holm-oak plantations that form the quintessential landscape of Extremadura, had always been home to a wide variety of livestock. The Count of Romanones bred racehorses, keeping them in a wing of the palace with vaulted roofs and metre-thick walls. (Juan Figueroa plans to restore these historic stables as a cheese maturing cellar.) The estate had cows and ibérico pigs, and its shepherds always produced a little milk for domestic consumption. Aline herself is supposed to have tried, and liked, a cheese made on the farm. But it wasn’t until eight years ago, when Juan’s father decided to go into sheep’s milk production at the neighbouring farm of Lomo de Hierro, another family property, that Pascualete began life as a large-scale professional dairy producer. At first the family sold its milk into the Torta del Casar Designation of Origin,until falling milk prices and the rising cost of animal feeds convinced them to add value to their product by converting it into cheese.
The quality of a dairy product, as anyone who knows about such things will tell you, exists in a direct relationship with the quality of the milk, which in turn is explained by the quality of the pasture and the welfare of the animals. Pascualete possesses a flock of between 1500 and 1800 Lacaune sheep, a French dairy breed which is highly productive yet much less hardy than its Spanish cousin the Merina. When not out grazing on the estate’s glorious pastures, an ensalada mixta of natural grasses, herbs and flowers, the sheep live in newly-built stables with state-of-the-art automatic milking machines. During the roasting heats of the extremeño summer they spend their days indoors and their nights outside. The Lacaune breed being somewhat delicate of stomach, a full-time nutritionist is on hand to ensure that these cosseted animals receive the best possible diet. They lamb once a year, half of the flock taking turns with the other to ensure a regular supply of milk. A normal daily milk yield at Pascualete is a generous three litres per sheep.
For a brand that has been in existence just over a year, Pascualete has got its act together in impressive style. The finca’s fascinating range of six cheeses is headed up by its Queso de Torta – a runny-centred cheese that takes its inspiration from the famous products of the DOs Torta del Casar and Torta de la Serena. Pascualete’s Torta, which so far doesn’t belong to either DO but is superior, in my opinion, to anything produced within the system, comes in four formats, from the standard kilo to 500g, 400g and a mini-Torta weighing in at around 140g. It is made according to the traditional method of curdling the milk with the dried flower of the wild thistle Cynara cardunculus giving a twist of bitterness to this fabulously rich and unctuous cheese.
All sheep’s milk cheeses
But the other products in the range, all made with sheep’s milk, are equally fine in their various ways. Monte de Trujillo is a cured manchego type, rustic in character, with a thin golden rind and a granulated texture, and Pascualino an oval-shaped, strong-flavoured cheese, hard and nutty. Both these and the Tortas are raw-milk cheeses. But even the pasteurized milk cheeses – Pastura and Bruma de Trujillo, French-type cheeses with white rinds, and the Cumbre de Trujillo, made from an old extremeño recipe – appear to defy the conventional wisdom that fine cheeses can only be made with raw milk. ‘Cumbre’, in particular, seduces the palate with its subtle, pleasant overtones of herbs and wool. It has been an immediate success, winning First Prize at Trujillo’s famous International Cheese Fair in 2010.
It was at the Cheese Fair in May last last year that I first met Juan Figueroa, tasted his cheeses, and began to discover the fascinating heritage behind the brand. A few months later, I finally got to see the missing piece of the puzzle: the great palacio and finca outside the historic town of Trujillo. I drove from my home in northern Extremadura across a landscape made parched and dusty by the relentless heats of high summer, yet still mesmerisingly beautiful. The single track road leading out of Trujillo towards the village of Santa Marta de Magasca wound among the dehesa, crossing the beds of dried-up streams. Finally a dirt track led down an avenue of streets towards a flagstoned courtyard surrounded by a harmonious collection of ancient buildings, including its own chapel. I tried to imagine the delighted reaction of Grace Kelly, Ava Gardner, Carolina of Monaco, to name but three of the friends of the Countess that had trod these stones before me.
‘The palace is the heart and soul of Pascualete’, said Almudena Retamosa, the Trujillo local responsible for the day-to-day running of the enterprise, as she pushed open a creaky medieval door into the cool interior of the house. The house is a symphony in craggy, dust-coloured local stone. Roman columns and tombstones merge almost imperceptibly into the whole. Though built on the grand scale, the decoration seems rather spartan for an aristocratic palace: the furniture is dark, rough-hewn, and weatherbeaten with centuries of age, the floors uneven, the beds set into the wall in the traditional Spanish ‘alcove’ arrangement. Old photographs show the Count and Countess on hunt days at the finca, the results of their labours, in the form of stag horns and wild boar tusks, adorning the walls. On a bedside table I spy a copy of the ‘History of Pascualete’ by Aline Griffiths, Countess of Romanones. Reeking of tradition and history, the house is both breathtakingly lovely and characteristically extremeño in its rustic simplicity.
Few outsiders will ever glimpse the interior of this legendary palacio. If the soul of the brand lies hidden, however, the products of Pascualete are poised to go out into a world eager to be told new stories, sold ever more delicious things. A former banker with a sophisticated business sense, Juan has been working hard at getting his cheeses ‘out there’ – with notable results. On the day I visited the company had just signed a deal with Carrefour Planet, the Spanish upmarket speciality shops within the Carrefour empire. Fancy Madrid delicatessens Embassy and Mallorca stock the cheeses (I have also seen them in the latter’s duty free concession at Barajas airport), as do cheese specialists La Fromagerie and La Boulette.
Meanwhile, foreign markets are responding positively to Pascualete’s original packaging (designed by Juan himself in plain waxed paper, twine and corrugated card), its fascinating brand heritage and, not least, the undeniable quality of its cheeses. The brand is present in England, in France, Belgium and Holland, and in the United States where Pascualete is currently in talks with Whole Foods Market and will soon be available in the dozen branches of Texas-based gourmet delis Central Market.
To end on a personal note, I recently organised an extremeño food festival at the Towpath Café restaurant in east London, with, among other activities, a series of tastings of Pascualete’s Torta and Pascualino cheeses and a talk (by yours truly) describing the rich culinary culture of Extremadura. Pascualete was the hit of the festival. My English friends were intrigued by the story of the spy and the aristocrat, charmed by the image of the historic country house, and bowled over by the complex aromas of these sensational cheeses. The experience seemed to confirm what I’d suspected ever since my visit to Trujillo: here is an extremeño brand that, successfully combining marketing style with gastronomic substance, surely has a brilliant future ahead of it. Look for it soon on a cheeseboard near you.
Fuente: Foods from Spain