Last night, I attended a really interesting Spanish cheese tasting and wine pairing event at UVM, hosted by the University's Vermont Institute for Artisan Cheese (VIAC). What made it so interesting? Two things: 1) There were several experts from Spain present. 2) I'd never tasted a single one of the selections we tried.
One expert from Spain was Dr. Montserrat Almena-Aliste, who is also on the VIAC staff -- I took her course in "Sensory Evaluation of Food" when I was doing my self-designed B.A. in interdisciplinary food studies back in the day. The others were Dr. Francisco Pérez Elortondo and Alfonso Zamora. There were a few local cheese whizzes there as well: Dr. Paul Kindstedt, author of American Farmstead Cheese, Jeff Roberts, author of the Atlas of American Artisan Cheese, and Willow Smart from Willow Hill Farm.
After we mingled and snacked on treats such as piquillo peppers, marinated mushrooms, Serrano ham and poached pears, servers delivered each attendee a plate with generous portions of the seven chosen cheeses. Each cheese was introduced by one of the experts, who made sure to relay where the variety of cheese is made and how it's produced. Then, everybody in the room cut, chewed and sipped in unison.
This is what we tried:
~ Nevat, a snowy white, soft-ripened cheese goat cheese from Catalunya. Paired with a white wine called Don Olagario Albarino.
~ Pata Cabra, a washed rind goat cheese from Zaragosa. Same wine pairing as above.
~ Idiazbal, a lightly smoked sheep cheese made in the Basque Country. Paired with a red wine called Scala Dei Negre.
~ Garrotza, a semi-hard goat cheese with a distinctive, silvery-purple rind from Catalan.
Same wine pairing as above.
~San Simon, a very soft and smooth smoked cow's-milk cheese from Galicia. Professor Almena pointed out that there is so little artisanally produced San Simon that the entire stash is consumed in Spain. This version is commercially produced. Same wine pairing as above.
~Zamorano, a tangy sheep cheese with a zig-zag pattern on the rind (similar to Manchego), from Castile-Leon. Paired with a very nice red called Bodegas Roda Roda.
~Valdeon, a strong cow's-milk blue cheese that is wrapped in Sycamore and Maple, from Cabrales. Same wine pairing as above.
I can't say which cheese is my favorite, as they were all new to me and were completely different from each other. I definitely enjoyed the Pata Cabra and funky Zamorano quite a bit, as well as the Valdeon. And it was fun to share my impressions with those at my table and to hear what some serious cheese-heads had to say about each one. Another neat aspect: seeing how the different wines "played" with each cheese. Very cool.