Catalan cheeses gain international prestige

The sector has widened its offers, projecting itself both nationally and internationally in recent years. Only 15% of the cheese produced in Catalonia is consumed by Catalans. The sector produces 10,000 tons of cheese a year and has grown in recent years both in quality and international recognition.

Emma Vila / CNA /

August 30, 2010 11:24 PM

Barcelona ( Not so long ago, people were going to one of the most famous restaurants in Barcelona, the Reno, and they were discovering that they had 1 dry Manchego cheese in case one client wanted to order some cheese, which was quite rare. There is a big difference with the festivals of different varieties that nowadays offer Catalan restaurants. Jean Louis Neichel was a pioneer in the introduction in Catalonia of a cheese trolley, which in France –where he was from– was very common. “I am from Alsace and, although in Alsace only two types of cheese are made, it is very common that any store has more than 40 varieties coming from all over the world. I already had the trolley when I was the cook in El Bulli. And in the Neichel in Barcelona, I have it since the first day. Maybe it is for this reason, and for the prices I have received for the trolley, that I am always invited to be a judge in cheese contests, like the one in Vic, Girona or la Seu. Thanks to that, I am able to discover varieties of cheese that I didn't know and that are wonderful, like the blue ones, such as the Blau de Vic. The problem is that, after the tasting, it is difficult to buy them in order to have them in the restaurant!"

The hand-made cheese and dairy industry in Catalonia is a mature one, with businesses spread out all over Catalonia. Here we can find a whole array of the most important fresh products, including pasteurised milk, yogurt, fresh cheeses, pastries and fresh cow, goat, and lamb’s milk. Many cheese producers are dedicated to freshness as well as the combination of mature cheeses in the making of high quality products. Traditional varieties include fresh cheeses such as el Garrotxa, a goat cheese with a creamy white interior and a natural grey mould rind and el Serrat and el Tupí cheeses, traditional specialities adapted for modern times. The distribution of Catalan cheese is many times scattered to remote areas and territories within the country. The celebrated Cendrat de Clúa cheese started after a group of neoruralists reoccupied the uninhabited town of Clúa and began producing the cheese. Direct selling is important for cases like these, as many local cheese companies go to the cities to sell their products and in some cases, tourists come to the rural production areas to buy the cheese directly. Businesses that specialise in the distribution of cheese for tourists, linking the rural producers and foreign buyers, are starting to pop up. Examples include businesses like Caceus of Granollers or Ardai in Barcelona. Sources from Ardai explained that, sometimes, the way to know the existence of a new cheese made in a lost farm is through a particular client, who tells them of the discovery he made the previous weekend. 'The contests, of course, are very useful. Even so, it is difficult because little producers don't make publicity of any kind. And another inconvenient of our work is that, unlike France, we don't have cheese stores yet. It will come, though. But, at present, we only have gourmet and delicatessen stores which have cheeses, but which don't have the enough variety required to have a business exclusively dedicated to this product'. Restaurants are the second type of clients of the distribution company. The relationship between them, when the restaurant is prestigious, is the best publicity a cheese can have. It is rare to hear how someone mentions the formidable sheep cheese Mas Farró, of the Vall de Bianya, without saying in which restaurant it is used: 'they use it in the Celler de Can Roca". All these problems, which are related to the expansion of small businesses, also look for a solution through associations. The Catalan Association of Farmers of Handmade Cheese (ACREFA), groups together 70% of the 110 handmade cheese producers in Catalonia. The production of handmade cheese gives direct jobs to 500 people, aside from the indirect jobs it gives. Moreover, the providers are more than a hundred farms of cows, goats and sheep. Some of these producers are foreigners. Oriol Urgell, ACREFA's President, says that 'our main markets are in the European Union, the US, Japan and Australia, and we are achieving the fact that Catalan cheeses have a great prestige as handmade and high-quality products. Last year, some Catalan cheese makers decided to participate in the World Cheese Awards, an international contest of great prestige. Thanks to the quality of our products, three Catalan cheeses won gold, silver and bronze medals in different categories. That way, they contributed to the promotion of the product made here and they showed, in front of international experts, that the sector has a future also outside Catalonia. The celebration of the 2nd Lactium fair, which took place in Vic on the 1st and 2nd of May, was an opportunity to make our dairy products and our handmade cheeses known to the entire world, as many international experts attended the festival. France, like we have seen, is not one of our main foreign markets yet, for two reasons: they are years ahead of us on this field and they value and promote what is of their own. That's why the Netherlands started an intelligent promotional campaign with the following slogan: 'The other great country of cheese'.