La Serena is framed by the Guadiana and Zújar rivers, with emblematic landscapes that highlight the chromatic spectacle of its skies. An Extremadura community located to the east of the province of Badajoz and responsible for creating an exquisite delicacy, bright color and tempting creamy: cheese with Protected Designation of Origin La Serena.
The only cheese made from the raw milk of Merino sheep has an intense flavour and an unmistakable aroma. The secret is in the grass, and is that this race has adapted since ancient times, to this habitat that provides a grass rich in protein. “Although they give little milk this is very rich in fat and has good flavor. Definitely the Serena has a pasture that although it is not very abundant is rich and fine, which makes the milk leave, what we call, a good palate,” acknowledges Genaro Sanchez Martin, owner of the cheesemaking Uncle Genaro.
Only 0.350 litres of milk are extracted from Merino sheep every day, which is why 15 sheep need to be milked twice a day to make one kilo of La Serena cheese. To curdle it, the wild thistle is used, better known as yerbacuajo , which is poured over the milk in the form of an infusion, and then follows an artisanal production process that ends with a maturing time in conditions of constant humidity and temperature.
The traditional elaboration of this delicacy is rooted in the memory of the inhabitants of the region. Wisdom that has been handed down from generation to generation and that keeps alive its most artisanal side. “It is difficult to determine when the Serena Cheese began to be made, but there is a record of its existence since the late Middle Ages. And if we judge it by the taxes with which it was engraved we can deduce that since then it was a well-valued cheese,” says Luis Donoso, technical director of D.O.P cheese Serena.
The making of this cheese was practically an accident. In the past, farmers realised that in spring the product acquired a different flavour. Richer, more addictive. One of the secrets of this cheese, of which 160,000 pieces were made in 2016, lies in the temperature and humidity required for its preparation.
Many years have passed since that accidental discovery and thanks to technology and ancestral knowledge it is no longer necessary to be spring to obtain it. Before, the curd was cut with the hand and laid on moulds or pleitas of espartos placed on a wooden table. There the serum was drained. Later came the moulding, which consisted in pressing the cheese with the hands to finish taking out the whey and moulding the product. Today the processes have changed, but the essential, what makes it unique is still preserved and protected. “The master cheesemakers handle the whole process with their hands”, confirms Donoso. “No matter how much technology helps us now, this is still an artisan cheese. It is a product that should be pampered, turned over every day, cleaned. All this influences its final flavour”, explains Sánchez Martín.
The cheese is salted by hand and then placed on wooden shelves in the airing room. Here the humidity is controlled, which must be between 75% and 80% and with a temperature of around 12 degrees Celsius.
The humidity and temperature allow the cheeses to dry on the outside and form a hard rind. Drying must be homogeneous and turned over daily. Later comes the maturing process which is when the cheese is sold to prevent it from spreading. And this is how the famous La Serena Cheese Cake was born.
Although its production is a tradition that is passed on from parents to children, recently a school for shepherds has been inaugurated. “The centre is in Castuera and different courses are given there”, adds Donoso. However, the preservation of this tradition is still oral. This is what Sánchez Martín tells us. “I am 72 years old and at the age of 7 I was already helping my father to make cheese. When I was 12 I could do it on my own”, he remembers. His whole life has revolved around this profession. He remembers that when he was little his father built him a stool so that he could reach the work table so that he could remove the whey from the cheese. As for eating it, for him this delicacy has always been the perfect dessert. “Modern cuisine mixes it, but for me cheese has always been present as a rich dessert,” he confesses.
Those who have tried it agree that Serena’s Cheese is a true spectacle for the senses. Its soft, creamy, buttery paste, its flavour with grassy notes and its contrasting textures make it a true gastronomic jewel, a tradition that must be preserved.