In Salamanca I bought a well-ripened Torta del Casar, a sheep’s milk cheese named after the town of Casar de Cáceres where this cheese originated, in the Extremadura, a region in Western Spain. There are a lot of producers in the area, mine was from the creamery of the brothers Pajuelo (Santiago is the brother who is still alive, Ignacio has passed away). They brand their torta Manjar Extremeño. Which probably translates as ‘delicacy from the Extremadura’ or something like that. Cáceres has UNESCO World Heritage status and the cheese befits its origin, because it is monumental. Like some other cheeses on the Iberian Peninsula, cardoon thistle pistils are used in curdling the milk, and this process leaves a faint bitterness in the cheese, that only adds to the complex flavors in this bad boy. It has a distinct smell and an equally distinct taste.
It is a big fat mouthful, especially when eaten as intended: put the torta on the table, slice of its top (the rind is quite hard as does not get eaten) and start spooning. The milk for the torta comes from Merino and Entrefina sheep and because both are not prodigious producers, it takes the milk of a small herd of sheep to make a single cheese. In turn, that makes Torta del Casar one of the most expensive cheeses in Spain. Cured for a minimum of two months, it is worth getting a cheese that is a little older to get the full benefit of the full-flavored runniness that makes this such an excellent experience. In 1999 the Torta received its DPO protection. There are at least another 3 tortas in Spain (Torta de Barros, Torta del Canarejal, and Torta la Serena) that are eaten in a similar fashion and have similar flavors. Collect them all! This one was eaten with colleagues as the sun was setting over the Douro Valley in Portugal, together with some other splendid cheeses from Salamanca, a dinner where cheese was the main course.
Ah, Salamanca. What a delight, what a delight. And what better place to soak up this delight but the Plaza Major. As a visitor, it is your job to see as much of a city as you can, but in this case, one could easily be forgiven if all available time is spent here, where the heart of the city beats. It gets brutally hot here during the day, so in the morning or after sunset is clearly the best time to hang out here, drink coffee or a glass of wine, depending on the time of day, and observe the going-ons on what is easily one of the most beautiful squares in Europe. The Plaza Major was started under King Philip V, who had successfully waged a war of succession (“I am the king” “No, I am the king” “No you’re not!” and so on, and so forth) with some important backing from the city of Salamanca. The grateful new king paid for the plaza, which was designed by one of the younger Churriguera brothers, Alberto, his nephew Manuel and Andrés Garcia de Quiñones.
In the Iberian Peninsula, they know a thing or two about architectural decoration – in most styles, there is a lot of it (probably a link to the Moorish past): in Portugal, the Manueline style is Gothic on steroids, the Plateresque is over-the-top Renaissance and the crazy bombastic baroque is named Churrigueresque after the aforementioned family. The brothers new a thing or two about making a building look positively spectacular. They actually went easy on the Plaza Major – the better Churrigueresque is seen in many churches of the period, and the style actually had somewhat of a revival in southern California with San Diego’s 1915 Panama-California exposition. A number of those buildings can still be found in Balboa Park. But back to Salamanca, drinks, cool night air and idle musings while blowing smoke from a Cuban cigar….
Where was I in those idle musings? OK, back to my contemplation on the job of the visitor, because beyond the square there are a host of other things to see here. The university has a number of splendid buildings (it is one of the oldest universities in Europe, founded in 1134), and then there is the cathedral, no wait, two cathedrals for the price of one. And that’s quite literally: you pay an entrance fee in the Gothic new cathedral and after you are done there, you can move on to the Romanesque church, which is right next door.
Usually when the church builders of yore created the great Gothic buildings, they plonked them right on top of the Romanesque church that was already there, taking it apart bit by bit to make room for the new and improved. Here, they decided to build the new building right next to the old one. I am a great fan of church art and architecture and the two cathedrals of Salamanca along with the cloisters are sort of a church-orgasm (no offense intended).
From Romanesque to Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque, the four major styles of the 600 years it took to build this complex are all splendidly represented in what is in essence one big labyrinth of a building. Both the outside and the inside are worth a great many oohs and ahs, so take your time here. The University buildings are in the same area, in fact most of Salamanca’s must sees are in a relatively small area. The oldest university building in particular has a facade that is a textbook example of the Plateresque style: Renaissance with a very high ‘look-at-all-that-stuff!’ factor.
Another building worth a mention is the Casa de las Conchas, the House of Shells. It was built by one Rodrigo Arias de Maldonado, a knight in the order of St. James and the scallop shell (coquille Saint-Jaques, as the French would say) is a symbol not only of the Saint himself, but of the pilgrims who visit Santiago de Compostela in Galicia in northern Spain. Even today, as the road to Santiago is experiencing a revival, people carry a shell on their backpack. If you don’t believe me, rent the movie The Way, starring Martin Sheen and somehow featuring a big burly Dutch character named Joost (weird). This building has hundreds of these shells on the facade. Today it is the city’s public library and it is another must see (so much for hanging out in the plaza, I realize I am starting to harangue now).
In the streets between the Plaza Major and the Cathedral there are lots of restaurants, small shops and bakeries with windows too good to pass by without stopping. None of it seems very good for the waistline and yet I did not see many residents with particularly inflated physiques. That reassured me into trying various tasty treats – I recommend the Madrileño for its stunning crumbing qualities (center right in the picture).
Finally, just off the Plaza Major is the covered market from the early 20th century, a temple of delicacies offered in clean, well-organized stalls. My runaway favorite here was the Rivas business, 4th generation merchants that offer all kinds of meats and a fine selection of raw milk cheese.
The three cheeses I bought here (a hard goat’s milk cheese, a hard sheep’s milk cheese and a torta, a runny sheep’s milk delicacy) were part of the cheesy dinner in the Douro Valley.
Mua (think ‘hmmwah’) is supposedly the onomatopoeia of the sound of a kiss. Yes, I just wrote onomatopoeia, and I freely admit that I had to look it up. In essence, it is a word that mimics the sound of what is described. So in Spain, a noisy smack on the cheek sounds like Mua, and Mua becomes a word to describe a kiss. Or a cheese, in this case. It comes in the shape of a heart, wrapped in a white paper dotted with red lips (“Mua!, mua!, mua!, mua!, mua!….).
The cheese comes from the island of Menorca, which has a very long tradition of cheese making: Spain’s famous Mahón cheese is from here, the Mua is a very recent addition to the cheese palette of the island. The milk for this cheese is produced by the Holstein or Menorquina cows that are largely allowed to roam in freedom over the pastures of the windswept island.
It comes in two varieties and mine had its white rind covered in crushed chamomile flowers, which gave it its very unusual flavor. The paste of the cheese is supple with a bit of a bite and very smooth. It is aged for a minimum of 45 days, which is enough to allow for a lot of flavor development. Mua with chamomile is a real standout, not something you’d find just anywhere.
I also picked up a piece of smoked cheese, the San Simon da Costa, which is protected with a DOP. It has a distinct smoky flavor and a sticky, dense paste which is very creamy. And of course, a piece of Manchego, that most Spanish of cheeses. Given its bold, well-rounded flavor, it is not difficult to see why Manchego is such a favorite. It is a hard cheese, but still very smooth and not all that crumbly. While some sheep’s milk cheese gets quite sharp with age, the Manchego is robust but never all that sharp. A king among the sheep’s milk cheeses.
Oh boy, Madrid is hot. In July and August, the highs are routinely in the 90s but I was there in June and I was dripping my way around. I ended up here because of Fernando Álvarez de Toledo, 3rd duke of Alba. No, I was not going to meet him for some tapas and a glass of sangria. He’s dead, and that is not such a bad thing. First off, he would be 508 years old and probably reeking a bit. Secondly, he was a meanie. When my people revolted against Spanish rule, that nasty King Philip II (we hates him) sent the duke to the Low Countries where he truly unfolded all his potential to be a monumental ass. And then, to top it off, he was a thief. He stole all kinds of things from the Nassaus, the family that led the revolt and among the pilfered goods was a triptych by Jheronimus Bosch, the Garden of Earthly Delights. According to at least one historian, the duke of Alba had the secretary of the Nassaus, who knew where the painting had been hidden, pretty much tortured to death, so that he was able to take it and bring it to Spain. This is not where the sordid story stops. Apparently, a big reason to get the painting was that his lord was very fond of the work of the Dutch master, and now he, Fernando, could come home to Spain with one of the best things Bosch had ever painted. His Dukeness, so the story goes, always felt somewhat underappreciated by the king, whose bacon he saved again, and again, and again. In your face, you ungrateful monarch! I have the best Bosch ever!
Alas, it did not last. Eventually, the triptych became part of the royal collection and therefore, I had to go to Madrid to see it. On the occasion of the 500th anniversary of his death, the Prado threw El Bosco a party in the shape of a major exhibition. This was my second one after Den Bosch so I am having a good Bosch year on top of a good cheese year. The Prado exhibit was, admittedly, more impressive than the one in the Noordbrabants Museum. And even if my main reason to visit the Prado was Bosch, there is a mountain of other art to see there: Goya’s pinturas negras, some splendid works by El Greco, and enormous amounts of lush nudity in the numerous works by Peter Paul Rubens, that cheeky purveyor of 17th century super-soft porn.
On my way to Portugal, I had to change planes in Madrid, so I added a single day and for my very brief time, I decided I could reasonably spend the afternoon pursuing cheese after overloading on that other culture in the morning. Initially, I was to go to the Poncelet cheese bar near my hotel, but that was closed by the time I got there, because I ended up wandering the old city for much of the afternoon. So after I had already spent a bit of time at what had become my favorite place in all of Madrid – the Mercado de San Miguel – I went right back there, for more food and more cheese.
I had already picked up a bit of cheese tapas-style, at Mya, a cheese stall that sells portions of the best Spanish cheeses, but also a lot of international ones. The covered market is, yes indeed, a highlight for tourists and, yes, quite gentrified, but still: it is a delight for the senses – all of them.
The smells obviously are incredible, as are the flavors. But on top of that, the food looks gorgeous and the place is just teeming with activity and noises. Before I went for some cheese to take with me to my hotel room, I decided to have some other foods as well, and I settled on a stand that sold all manners of seafood.
Here, I had to try to barnacles, which are such strange-looking shellfish that they practically dare you to eat them. I also tried some smooth clams and washed it all down with a glass of crisp dry white.
I then headed to the cheese place, got a piece of San Simon da Costa, a smoked cow’s milk cheese, a chunk of Manchego, a hard sheep’s milk cheese and half a Mua, the 23rd cheese of the week – see my post for that one. I returned to my hotel by metro, which is a rather ugly (think bad 1970s-colored tiles) but very clean and safe way to get around in Madrid. Perfect also because it is underground and air-conditioned – so the dripping can be brought under control.