What is it with Menorca and cheese? If there isn’t a cow within a hundred yards of you, there is a good chance that either someone is trying to feed you some of the good stuff or that you are actually in a cheese shop. Mahon cheese (named after its traditional city of export) is eaten for starters, mains, desserts and, at times, as a cheeky side dish for in between meals. Gusto Guides decided to hit the road in search of the people behind Menorca’s award-winning cheeses.
Our first visit was to a small farm near Ciutadella that happened to supply the Hotel Tres Sants. ‘Sure,’ said Jose, the hotel’s charming manager, ‘you head down the road past Lithica, keep going and the farm’s on your right. Can’t miss it.’
We missed it. After an about turn, directions from a kindly workman and a nifty manoeuvre, we found ourselves heading down a bumpy track that wound through a farmyard, past a stack of hay bales and beyond a seemingly abandoned barn. Binigarba really doesn’t look like the kind of place that is open to the public until you swing round into the second farmyard and see a sign saying ‘Timbre‘: the bell. We rang the bell and were greeted by the lovely Esperanza.
This is a real cottage industry. The only milk used here is from the farm’s cows and the products are all certified organic. The cheese is made in the traditional way: hand pressing unpasteurised curds into a fabric square, known in Menorquin as a fogasser, then putting the resulting parcel into a press. When the cheese has taken on a firmer consistency, explained Esperanza, it goes into the cheese room where it will stay until it matures. The cheese room?
Oh, the cheese room. At a cool 14 degrees or so, the shelves of the cheese room are stacked floor-to-ceiling with cheese of various ages. They are turned regularly and, when they are ready, cleaned off and rubbed down with olive oil and paprika to give the rind its distinctive orange colour. The farm produces a number of varieties including the mild semicurado, stronger curado and full-flavoured añejo, aged for a full year. Binigarba’s shop – a room with refrigerated counter to the side of the main workshop – offers their cheeses at bargain prices – you can expect to walk away with 1.5kg of cheese for about €12 euros, although this isn’t an exact science as portions are sold based on how big a proportion of a whole cheese is being sold (a half, a quarter, etc).
Next we headed off to meet Carlos, from local dairy co-operative Coinga. Coinga work with around 50 dairy farms from across the island from small (less than 20 cows) to large (200 plus), and produce a number of cheeses (including a pasteurised version that is available for export) on a larger scale, all the while staying faithful to the traditional Menorcan cheesemaking process.
First stop is one of Coinga’s farms, run by the ebulliant Sebastián, and as it happened we arrived just in time for morning milking. We watch as Sebastián walks the cows through into the milking room (or rather, they stroll in right on cue as though they were clocking in for a morning shift), attaches the milking machine and steps back to tell us a little about his work (until one of Gusto’s writers gets unceremoniously pooed on, and he is temporarily distracted by hosing him down). He knows and loves each and every one of his 18 cows individually, and it is clear to see how much pride he takes in ‘his girls’. The 450 litres of milk a day (that’s a whopping 200,000 litres per year) that Sebastián’s cows produce each day from two milking sessions are taken to the co-operative’s factory in nearby Alaior for processing.
‘Menorquin cheese is special, because it tastes of the sea,’ explains Sebastián. ‘The northerly winds that blow in from the Mediterranean bring a salty taste to the plants, and from the plants to the cattle to the milk’. Life has changed little for local farmers on Menorca since the Middle Ages, explains Carlos, and many still operate on the same economic basis: a landowner who holds the deeds to the land allows a tenant farmer (like Sebastián) to work the land, and they split the profits ‘amitgeries‘.
After milking, it’s time to feed the cows. Menorquin cows are lucky, explains Sebastián, because most of the year they are free to wander the fields and graze at will – ‘that’s why they have such lovely feet’. It’s only in the thin months that they are more limited, and feed on hay or alfalfa (that Sebastián spends the rest of the year carefully growing and storing) and pienso – a protein supplement.
It’s a hard life, but Sebastián seems indefatigably cheery: he typically rises around dawn 7 days a week, and spends 5 hours a day looking after the cattle, and the rest of his time growing hay and alfalfa. ‘You’ve just got to do it,’ he shrugs. ‘When my son got married last year, I was back here a few hours later milking the cows.’
We say our goodbyes to Sebastián and head with Carlos to Coinga’s nearby headquarters, where he shows us the next step in the process: the huge vats where the milk is stored and pasteurised before being turned into cheese (although some is left au naturel for making small batches of more artisan products). He explains how a master cheesemaker then adds rennet in just the right quantity (a skill that apparently takes years of experience) before the curds are formed and pressed into the traditional squarish Menorquin cheese.
After this comes the cheese equivalent of a jacuzzi: the salting pool, where salt levels and pH are precisely controlled to give the cheese the best flavour possible. The pressed cheeses are floated into the pool before being sunk into the salt water for apporximately 24 hours. When released, Carlos laughs, they look like they know where they’re going as they bob along in the current. Coinga has even bigger cheese rooms than Binigarba – think a cheese version of The Matrix – and, once they are aged to perfection, a whole room dedicated to ‘hair and makeup’. They are rubbed with the same olive oil and different colourings depending on the age of the cheese, before being packed up for delivery. Coinga only make cheese to order, explains Carlos, although smaller, personal orders are possible too.
In the tasting room, we try a few of the Coinga products for size. First up is the milk – fresh and pasteurised, this is a world away from most of the milk sold in Spain, which unfortunately tends to be in UHT tetrapaks. This is much creamier than normal full-fat milk, almost like Jersey milk, and sales tend to skyrocket in the summer months ‘because of all the British tourists,’ says Carlos.
Of the cheeses, we try the pasteurised varieties first: tierno (aged 30 days), semicurado (aged approximately 3 months) and the curado (6 months). Carlos explains the relative advantages of using pasteurised milk for some products: you get a more homogenous and predictable outcome, ideal for the export market. The tierno is excellent – softish although still full-flavoured and often used in local recipes and sometimes served with fruit for a traditional Menorquin dessert. The semi has a lovely texture – much softer than many of Spain’s more internationally-renowned cheeses (like Manchego, the Paul McCartney of Spanish cheese) although still firm and full-flavoured. The curado is strong and smooth, and would be ideal for salads or on its own as a simple snack. The unpasteurised cheeses are similar to their pasteurised counterparts, although both have a lovely sharp edge and come in all different shapes and sizes thanks to the traditional manufacturing process.
Menorca’s cheese industry is more than just a supplier of foodstuffs: we saw how passionate so many people are about producing the best product possible, from the farmer to the international exporters. Try some for yourself: ask your local cheesemonger for Menorca or Mahon cheese, or get in touch with Coinga directly.
Binigarba Quesos, S.L.
Address: Cami Vell des Barranc, Ciutadella de Menorca, Menorca
Tel: +34 791 188 811 or +34 656 979 170
Address (HQ, factory and shop): Carretera Nova, parc. 78-79, Apartado 41, 07730 Alaior, Menorca
Tel: +34 971 37 12 27
Web (and online shop): www.coinga.com