“This cheese is atortao.” “It’s no good. It spreads. For many that cheese was a “mistake”. It didn’t curdle well, it spread and a creamy paste drained through its cracks. What the inhabitants of Cáceres did not imagine in the past was that in their hands they had a real delicatessen, what we know today as La Torta del Casar, which in 1999 registered its denomination of origin, although it was not until August 2003 that the European Union protects it from any imitation. Without a doubt, it is one of the great stars of the Extremadura Cheese Route. An exquisite experience that will accompany us on our journey through Extremadura.
“My grandfather had noticed that in summer the cheese did not curdle well and that everything was tied up. I didn’t know or understand what had gone wrong in the process”, says Ricardo Regalado, a farmer and cheese producer and co-owner of the El Castúo cheese factory. He is 66 years old and has dedicated practically his whole life to making cheese. “I have always lived here, in the countryside. I remember when I was 7 years old I liked to get up at 6 in the morning to go see the animals. My grandfather was dedicated to the world of livestock, my father continued the business and I have extended the legacy,” says Regalado who is also an agricultural technician.
He was always involved in the family dairy. “For me it was a hobby. Many are given to run, I am given to make cheese,” he laughs out loud. But in addition to continuing the family business, Regalado has been a true entrepreneur. His ambition led him to build a chamber to preserve the cheese and dispose of it all year round and he did it at the point of “blows”, but he learned. And then he made another one. “It wasn’t until 1978 that he got the name Torta del Casar. Over the years we producers have defined the qualities it should have, but before this did not exist,” he recalls.
It is precisely the punctual characteristics of this cake that make it unique. For this cheese to bear the D.O.P. seal, it must have been made in Cáceres and within the regions of Llanos de Cáceres, Sierra de Fuentes and Montánchez. It is made with raw milk from merino and entrefina sheep and uses a natural rennet obtained from the pistils of thistle flowers, scientifically called Cynara Cardunculus. “The result must be an extremely creamy cake with a thin, light rind”, explains Javier Muñoz, Director of the Regulatory Council of the D.O.P. of Torta del Casar, who is responsible for ensuring that only cheeses that meet these conditions bear the mark that certifies their authenticity.
When Regalado built the first chamber, he had no idea at what temperature it should be or what humidity it should have, but on a test basis and discovered it. It is no secret that this delicacy must be made with precision and under certain conditions that ensure that the raw milk from the sheep will result in a creamy paste.
Ricardo is a man of wit. He has been inventing ways to speed up the manufacturing process, and he has done it with what he has had at hand. “It occurred to me that instead of using the esparto pad I could use nylon so we could squeeze more cheese. I also made a press with the shock absorbers of a motorbike and an endless screw,” he recalls his inventions, all of them now mechanized thanks to technological advances.
Like him, 150 other people, including farmers, shepherds and producers have decided to bet on the production of Torta del Casar, a product that continues to be worked by hand. According to Muñoz, the level of production of this type of cheese has varied over the years. “In 2002 some 165,000 pieces were sold and by 2006 we had already managed to sell half a million. But in 2009 and due to the economic crisis we experienced a fall in sales, we only sold 470,000 pieces”, Muñoz enumerates. However, the producers looked for an alternative. If large cakes (between 800 and 900 grams) were no longer sold for their price, then they would launch medium (about 600 grams) and small (500 grams) cakes on the market. This is how the Director of the Regulatory Council of the D.O.P. of Torta del Casar explains it; “once we introduced the new formats we noticed that there was an increase in sales. Maybe we didn’t sell big cakes as much anymore, but the client found options in the market and little by little the sale began to take off again. In 2016 we registered the sale of 537,000 pieces”, he points out.
If we speak in terms of percentages, the cake that sells the most is the small one with 57%, followed by the medium one with 40% and the big one with 8% of the total registered sales.
This delicacy doesn’t have as much world fame in vain. Those who have been seduced by its powerful “slightly bitter” taste, by the creaminess of its texture, its strong aroma and its peculiar way of cutting – it is worked from the top – know that it is a real pleasure for the senses. And Muñoz recommends pairing it with cava from Extremadura, white wines but not very sweet and Sherry wines. He also proposes mixing it with tomato or onion marmalade, as they provide some sweetness and enhance its flavour.
After milking the sheep, the milk coagulates with the wild thistle. Once the rennet has been cut with a steel wire called liras, it is moulded to remove the whey, pressed and lightly salted. Then they are placed in the chambers to mature, with temperatures between 4 and 12 degrees centigrade and a relative humidity between 75 and 90% until they mature. The evolution of the cheese changes the appearance and colour of the rind. Subsequent maturation should be at least 60 days, as recommended by the D. O. P. But this depends on the size of the cake. The result is a creamy cheese, slightly bitter, with an interior between white and yellow.
Centuries have passed and the mystery of the “atortamiento” has been revealed, today a bite of the Torta del Casar is more than a gastronomic pleasure, it is a journey through the historical richness of the area, through its towns, cities, castles and squares and of course through its natural landscapes and its geographical identity -softened continental climate, shallow soils- home to pastures, herbaceous plants, grasses and legumes of great nutritional value, which makes the milk of its sheep is of an indisputable quality.