This month we are truly honoured to have Marcelino Real Ibáñez as our guest contributor. Marcelino is a master cheesemaker from Northern Spain, who has promoted and developed a beautiful, creamy cheese, of ancient origins, called Torta de la Serena. The cheese is made from Merino sheeps’ milk and vegetable rennet produced from local thistles. In the photo above Marcelino is the one on the left with glasses, on the right is Commercial Director, Ricardo Reinolds. Torta de la Serena is a PDO.
I was born some fifty years ago in Ontaneda, in a small village in the mountain range near Santander in northern Spain. My family has a long tradition of cheese making which began with my grandfather, who in that period had a cheese factory in an area where concentrated milk products were manufactured. Later he began to develop a new cows’ cheese, named Los Campesinos de Oruña, a cream cheese from Cantabria, which today has a Denominación de Origen (or PDO in the EU). Each cheese is fire-branded for identification.
My father continued the cheese making tradition for many years and, in turn, he taught me how to develop cheeses. Even as a very small boy he used to take me into the factory, and in time I came to work there.
In 1984 the factory closed due to economic problems and I decided to go to the heart of the manchego cheese making area, to a cheesery where they make Manchego in Almaden, in Ciudad Real. I worked there as a master cheesemaker and manager of the cheesery for ten years.
As Almaden is located very close to Extremadura, we bought the sheeps’ milk from farms in this neighbouring province. We formed a strong bond with these suppliers, and eventually we decided to join together and form a new cheesery, the Arteserena SL, located in Belfry, Badajoz. This area is in the heart of the valley of La Serena. And it was here that we began to develop the famous Torta De La Serena in order to be able to produce it in larger quantities.
Now I’m the CEO as well as a partner of Arteserena and also Manager of the cooperative Naturser, which has the responsibility for marketing all the products we produce.
Developing Torta de la Serena
It took several years to develop the Torta de la Serena because it’s a complex cheese and we didn’t have experience of producing it in large quantities. Until that time it had only been made in small batches by the farmers in the spring. Now we produce this wonderful cheese all year round thanks to careful planning of the birthing schedule of the sheep. Today we use one million litres of milk supplied by our partners, the Merino sheep farmers, to make about 200,000 kilos of Torta de la Serena. It takes fifteen ewes to produce enough milk to make one kilo of Torta de la Serena.
Where we export
Nowadays our cheeses are exported to the UK, the United States, France, Holland, Norway, Greece, Italy… … …all over the world in fact. Our export market is growing considerably, limited only by the delicate nature of the product – there are difficulties in both conserving it and also in transporting it.
Why we use Merino sheep’s milk to make our cheese
All the milk that we use comes from Merino sheep, a local breed of Extremadura, which is able to withstand well to the harsh weather conditions in the region. Traditionally this breed was used mainly for wool, and also for meat, but not for milk or cheese as this provided the best financial return for the shepherds. When the market for wool collapsed and the price fell spectacularly, the shepherds began to reconsider the use of their flocks and developed a cheese originally simply to feed their own families, but later the shepherds were able to derive an income from it.
Initially the cheese was rather hard, having been left to mature for an entire year, so that it could be resorted to as a constant source of food.
The challenges to making this type of cheese
There were problems with this type of cheesemaking. If there was a high rainfall and the temperature rose the cheeses cracked and became misshapen. As this cheese ripens it becomes very soft and creamy, it tends to collapse and deform – a bit like a cake. Large cracks appear in the crust of the cheese and the creamy middle oozes out. When this happened in the past the shepherds deemed the cheese to be spoiled and sold it off at half price.
But over time attitudes changed and when these conditions occurred and the cheese matured in this way it became highly prized by connoisseurs, developing quite a reputation.
The vegetable rennet we use comes from the Cardoon thistle
The Torta de la Serena is made from raw Merino sheep milk, vegetable rennet* and salt. The vegetable rennet which curdles the cheese comes from the Cardoon thistle, Cynara cardunculus. The pistils of the thistle flowers are macerated in water 24 hours before use.The enzymes work slowly, and therefore coagulation also occurs slowly with a resultant depth and complexity of flavour for the cheese. This rennet also gives a slight bitterness to the salty cheese – an additional unexpected depth. The cheese matures for a minimum of 60 days on wooden shelves, in an environment with humidity of 96% and a temperature of 4°C. With these conditions we ensure that the moisture from the curd doesn’t evaporate and by the end of the process the cheese remains creamy.
Many people ask what the differences are between Torta de la Serena and other similar cheeses:
The difference between Torta de la Serena and Torta del Casar:
Torta del Casar is made not far from the area where Torta de la Serena is made, however the pastures of the two cheeses are very different. The grass on which the sheep providing the milk for Torta de la Serena are grazing is short, fine grass, whereas the Torta del Casar grass grows on richer, wetter soil.
More importantly, however, Torta de la Serena is made only with milk from the Merino breed which yields only 0.5 of a litre per day and has to be milked twice; while Torta del Casar is made from mixed breeds of sheep (mostly Lacaune). The Lacaune breed yields 1.6 litres of milk per day.
Nevertheless, Merino milk is very rich in fat and protein with annual average values of 9 degrees of fat and 7 degrees of protein, while the Lacoune breed gives only 7 degrees of fat and 6 degrees of protein. This means that with the Merino we need less milk to produce a kilo of cheese.
The third important difference is that the amount of vegetable rennet which is added to the milk used to make La Serena cheese is less than the amount used in Torta del Casar resulting in a milder flavour. The Torta del Casar is a stronger-tasting cheese – sometimes almost achieving a sour taste, but in an interesting, sophisticated way.
The difference between Torta de la Serena and Queijo Serra da Estrela:
Queijo Serra da Estrela is produced just over the border in Portugal. This cheese also uses only milk from Merino sheep, but they use a lot more rennet in the cheese-making process – more even that the amount used in making Torta del Casar, and it’s even stronger in flavour with a more pronounced bitter taste than Torta del Casar. Another difference is that they salt the milk directly – that is to say that they add salt to the milk and cheese whereas we salt Torta de la Serena by rubbing it in at the end of the manufacturing process; this is why the Portuguese cheese is saltier.
The difference between Torta de la Serena and Vacherin/Mont d’Or:
Vacherin/Mont d’Or is made of cows’ milk. It’s matured at a hotter temperature – for a month at 12°C whereas the Torta de la Serena maturing process is cold and slow ripening – a temperature of only 4°C for a minimum of two months, in conditions of high humidity in order to avoid allowing the cheese to become dry and hard.
When the cheese is soft and liquid it’s known as Torta de la Serena and it is eaten by slicing off the top and scooping out the inside. When it becomes hard or semi-hard it is known as Queso de la Serena.
You can buy Torta de la Serena directly from Naturser – they will ship anywhere in the world.
*Go here for a really informative post on the difference between vegetarian and animal rennet.