If Asturias had a single food ambassador to the world, this would be it. Queso Cabrales is, without exaggeration, one of the great blue cheeses of the world. There are very few cheeses anywhere that can sell a wheel for $22,000. I can vouch for that happening. I was there in Arenas de Cabrales when it happened.
I understand why, too. If you like blue cheeses (and I very much do) this is something of a religious experience. My personal history with Cabrales is long. It was one of the first things I ate in Spain in 2014 that I truly fell in love with. And I’ve been in love with it ever since. It has become a way of life. As Will Self once said “to describe Queso Cabrales as a mere cheese is akin to saying Francis Bacon’s Study after Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X is a nice picture of a Catholic priest.“
Where Is It From?
The regulations of the DOP require that the cheese be made and aged entirely within the area comprised of the conceyo of Cabrales and the border towns of Oceño, Cáraves and Rozagás in neighboring municipality of Peñamellera Alta. All are located high in the Picos de Europa area.
The milk production areas coincide with the production areas, and can come from any breed of sheep, cows, or goats, as long as they are raised in the DOP area.
How Queso Cabrales Is Made
Cabrales cheese is made from cow, sheep or goat milk, or a mixture of two or three of these types of milk. Cheese makers only use raw, whole milk, without preservatives. Once the initial shaping, pressing, and drying are done, it is transferred to the fabled limestone temples to age and mold. It will lay there for months. The youngest are removed after two months of careful neglect. More mature specimens rest for four or five months. In these high elevation natural limestone caves, the air is phenomenally damp. 90% humidity is not only common, it is regarded as the perfect amount.
Some of those caves have been in continuous use as cheese caves for 200 years. That age, combined with the chilly and humid conditions, have caused these caves to become seething cauldrons of bluish-green penicillium mold. However, unlike other blue cheeses which are injected with penicillium, Cabrales cures from the outside in, as these cave dwelling mold-goblins work their way into the heart of the wheel. That is how much mold there is living in these caves.
The story goes like this. A shepherd milking his cattle fell in love with a girl who was passing by. He set the milk in a nearby cave and followed her for a chat. Having found something more interesting to do, he promptly forgot his milk duty and the milk sat and spoiled. Then, when winter came and there was a food shortage, the shepherd remembered the milk forgotten in the cave. He went to get it and discovered that it had been transformed into Cabrales.
In the recent past, Cabrales sold wrapped with Sycamore Maple (Acer pseudoplatanus) leaves and tied up with twine. These days it is available solely in a dark-green-colored aluminum foil with the stamp of the DOP Queso de Cabrales.
Uses For Queso Cabrales
Asturians use Cabrales in an astonishing variety of ways. They melt it over meat. You find it turned into a dip for french fries or sliced lovingly on a tabla. I have whole cookbooks dedicated to all the things you can stuff Cabrales into. And I have another just for things you can melt Cabrales over.
I am extremely partial to Cabrales made into a sauce and added to most anything. I like to crumble it on salads, or over pasta.
The following recipes are available using Queso Cabrales:
Where To Find Queso Cabrales
Like sidra natural, queso Cabrales is ubiquitous in Asturias. You can find it anywhere, in any grocery store, in any town. But, the best place to find it is in Arenas de Cabrales. Go there on the last weekend in August, and you’ll find naught else but Cabrales. That is when the certamen happens. Part competition, part auction, part tasting, and part drunken revel, it is a cheese lover’s dream come true. If you want to really get up close and personal with Cabrales, this is how you do it.
Fortunately for you, Cabrales is dead easy to find in the States. Most upscale grocery store chains either stock it or can get a hold of it with no problem. HEB, Albertsons, Whole Foods, and many others should have it in stock. If you do not have a local grocery store that can get it for you, check my list of Asturian Food Suppliers in the United States.