Discovering Artisan Cheese in the Picos de Europa
One of the most invigorating aspects of visiting unfamiliar places is when unexpected things occur and turn what would usually be just another ordinary visit into a memorable experience to be cherished forever. I find that usually those experiences centre around the people you meet or when a challenge has to be overcome - that is exactly what happened to my husband and I when we walked around Lake Ercina, one of the glacial Lakes of Covadonga in the Picos de Europa National Park in Asturias, Spain.
We had arrived early in the morning to take in the striking landscape and beat the 8.30am deadline when the road to the lakes from Covadonga is closed to the public in the summer months to control visitor numbers. After this time the only way to make the journey to the lakes is by bus, private taxi, bicycle or walking.
Having already spent some time walking around investigating the history of the Buferrera mines in this area, we left the teenagers to eat their sandwiches beside the lake's edge and decided to meander around the lake. We had been told by one of our neighbours that there was actually a third lake, Lake Bricial, which forms when Ercina and Enol begin to thaw and disappears again once the thaw is over.
Lake Ercina | 📷 Deborah Blank
This was our third or fourth visit to the Lakes and we had never discovered Bricial before so we decided to divert our walk to search for it. As we began our climb away from the lake's edge, a few mountain cabins or "majadas" came into view. These majadas are refuges used by local shepherds who tend to the Asturian cows which freely graze all over the mountain range during the summer months before returning to the valley in the winter. There are many of these dotted amongst the rugged landscape, only discernible when you get close enough to see the terracotta of the roof against the grey backdrop of the mountain rock.
As we climbed past Fuente Las Reblagas there was an old lady sitting alongside one of the path signs with a large hat on and a simple wooden pole. I thought she was a resting hiker but then quickly realised after a mutual exchange of "buenos dias" (good morning) that she actually lived here! My children always accuse me of speaking too much to strangers and on this occasion this tendency certainly paid off when we discovered that she was in her seventies (born 1944) and that this had been her house since her childhood. Her name was Eloiba Caso and she explained that the wandering cows around the area were hers and she used their milk to make her own unique cheese.
This area of Asturias is reknowned for producing Gamoneu cheese, a lightly smoked full-fat, cheese made from raw cow's, goat's or sheep's milk. It is a semi-hard cheese and mild in flavour. Gamoneu is still produced using very traditional techniques and is an excellent example of gastronomic craftsmanship in action.
There are over forty different artisanal cheeses produced in Asturias, an impressive number considering the region's size. When I asked Eloiba what her cheese was called, she simply said that it didn't have a name - it was her own handmade cheese, smoked in her hut and sold directly to whoever was adventurous enough to reach her hut and understand the value of an authentic taste of the Picos!
Eloiba Caso's hut on the route to Lake Bricial | 📷 Deborah Blank
Jose and I never did reach Lake Bricial! Our encounter with Eloiba was exhilarating and inspiring and we spent time chatting to her and hearing about her youth spent in the mountains and exploring her father's old cabin which was built into the mountain rock. Time had gotten away from us so we took delight in our chance encounter and happily trudged back down the mountain laden down with the gastronomic fruits of our adventure and feeling happy having met a true artisan, breathed in the fresh mountain air and enjoyed the picturesque landscape.
Information on Gamoneu Cheese: https://www.cocinayvino.com/en-la-cocina/especiales/queso-gamoneu-joya-de-los-picos-de-europa/