Thursday Sept 22nd: An interview with Rafael Baez – artisanal cheese maker
On Thursday, September 22nd, we had the rare opportunity to meet Rafael and Paloma Baez, the artisanal cheese makers responsible for the delicious Monte Enebro goat cheese, which many people have had at Mas with brioche and homemade apricot preserves.
In hindsight, Aranda del Duero wasn’t the best starting point for this visit, as our route to El Valle del Tiétar took us back towards Madrid the same way we had driven on the first day. However, we got to see new, diverse and dramatic landscapes along the way with beautiful mountains full of oak, olive and cork trees.
The father-daughter duo runs the cheese making and day-to-day operations at “Queserias del Tiétar”, about an hour northwest of Madrid, where they produce four different goat cheeses: a fresh one, a semi-cured one, a spreading one (with or without herbs) and their award-winning Monte Enebro. The operation is pretty small and definitely feels like a family business.
Don Rafael greeted us at the door and had us follow him through the cheese store and a machinery-filled hallway to his office. As we sat, he pointed a tall stack of papers: “Those are the plans to triple our cheese making facility…” he said “… we keep running into each other in this tiny little building and we’ve had a lot of growth”
We had the opportunity to ask some questions:
We’ve heard that your background is not in cheese making, how did you become interested in it?
I was in iron and steel sales for years, and as my retirement age approached I quickly realized that I was going to need a hobby to keep me from getting bored. I enrolled in an artisanal cheese-making course in an institute in Catlunya, the rest is history.
Where do the animals come from?
While we source the milk from different farmers, we want to keep our operation local. For that reason, all the milk we use in our cheeses comes from the Tiétar Valley and no further than 30 Km from here.
In dealing with different milk producers, how do you ensure a consistent quality?
All the milk we receive is sampled and tested before we use it for cheese. We have a strict series of tests to ensure that the milk is of the highest level of quality. We test for acidity, fat/protein ratio, and decomposition under heat. If a certain milk is not up to standard, we will contact its producer before tossing it out so that they can understand while their product didn’t make the cut.
Is there any ash in the Monte Enebro coating?
No. Monte Enebro is coated by a blue mold denominated penicillium roqueforti, which only grows in a couple of places in the world. We buy this mold, dilute it in water and spray it on the surface of the Monte Enebro logs. By spraying it we ensure that the mold acts as a coating and doesn’t penetrate the log of cheese.
Is Monte Enebro made with pasteurized milk?
“Enebro” means “Juniper berry”… what is its role in the production of Monte Enebro?
None. Juniper berries grow here in the Tiétar Valley but have no role in the production process for any of our cheeses. We simply wanted to include a local reference in the name of one of our cheeses.
What is the ideal time for eating Monte Enebro cheese?
Monte Enebro is best eaten while it’s still fresh. Even though it will keep for up to 2 months in the refrigerator, I believe that the fresher cheese tastes better because it’s softer and milder in flavor.
A young Monte Enebro is creamy in texture and white in color. As it ages, it loses mass, it becomes drier, develops cracks and turns a darker hue. It’s still delicious, but the flavors get stronger.