Readers of this blog will know that I like my food, especially if it’s from a small local producer, and that I also love days out and trips with my kids, even more so if we’re “close to nature” and eating is an essential part of the experience. So going to an organic farm with the kids to make goat’s cheese – what could be more free-range, foodie and fun?
A few months ago we went to the Sierra de Aracena for the day, to Finca Los Robledos near the town of Aracena – around an hour’s drive from Seville. Down a bumpy country road, then a narrow farm track with a little stream flowing next to it, we finally arrived at the farm. Our hostess and guide was Maria Jesus, who owns the farm along with a cheese shop in Aracena. It’s a family affair: one of her sons, Manuel, looks after the goats, along with his girlfriend; Maria Jesus and her husband, Rafael, make the cheese; and her other son, Miguel, runs the cheese shop in town – his daughter was there on the day we visited, and she played happily with my two children.
But Maria Jesus is definitely the brains and the driving force behind the operation. An energetic, sharp-witted, creative woman, she is full of tales of when her father ran the farm – it was sold to him by a terrateniente (landowner) on very fair terms (unlike today’s endless horror stories of banks, mortgages and evictions). In fact, her family has been making cheese for five generations.
The cheese world in the Sierra de Aracena is a small one, and it turns out another favourite cheese of mine, Doña Manuela, is owned by one of Maria Jesus’s brothers; Manuela is their mother’s name. Both Monte Robledo, Maria Jesus’s cheese, and Doña Maneula are certified organic, as both herds of goats graze on the same pasture – her farm is part of a 400-hectare plot of land divided between the three siblings.
Maria Jesus’s herd of goats numbers 150, and she makes 10,000 kilos of cheese every year. The goats wander on the grassy hills around the farm by day, grazing on wild plants including acorns which makes them produce greater quantities of creamy milk, full of protein and with a fantastic taste. The goats are milked by machine every morning, munching on a snack during the process to keep them happy. Maria Jesus explains that it’s quicker and less painful for them, with silicone teats like those on a baby’s bottle. The goats are friendly, nuzzling me and the children; some of the kids, whose mothers wouldn’t feed them and had to be hand-fed using bottles, are downright cheeky and head-butt us.
We all try our hand at milking – Miguel shows us how to hold, squeeze and pull the teat in the right direction, with pressure in just the right spot. I worry about hurting the poor animal, but a warm jet of white liquid spurts out and Lola shrieks with delight. Her little hands manage to produce some milk too, though Zac finds it trickier.
Then Maria Jesus shows us the kitchen garden, a long grassy sloping area where they grow tomatoes and other vegetables in summer. The scenery is beautiful – lush grassy hills covered in oak trees, and today the sun is shining so it looks idyllic. There’s a small patio, with low buildings on one side: we visit the little museum, which is chock-full of fascinating old agricultural implements. I love places like this – finding out how people lived and worked in these hills years ago. If you visit their shop in Aracena, you can see more such vintage farming tools.
Maria Jesus picks up a scary-looking metal collar with long spikes which looks like a medieval instrument of torture. It was for the dog who looked after the goats, to protect him from wolves – a serious danger to livestock until only a few decades ago. Other antique contraptions in this cave of wonders are a hand hay-baler; an iron cooking brazier; a mill for grinding cereal to feed the pigs; an entremijo, a wooden tray used to separate curds from whey when making cheese (read on for more about this process); an iron plough; and glass jars full of dried herbs such as arnica and hierbabuena (mint) collected by her mother (the mint still has a strong smell despite its years). It puts the farm into a historic context, which seems a wonderful idea and makes our visit that much richer.
The we go into the dairy – this is unashamedly modern, with stainless-steel vats for making the cheese. The milk is filtered when it comes out of the goat, and then heated gently and stirred with big paddles. When it is hot, rennet is added to make it coagulate, and then it is “cut” with a metal implement with blades called a lira.
The cuajada (curd) and suero (whey) are gradually separated (the latter is fed to the pigs, as it’s high in protein), until you have a creamy, dense-textured white mass which is pushed into small plastic moulds with slots for the whey to drain out. The cheese is turned over every day, and after 20 days you have a semi-curado cheese. If you want a stronger fill-flavoured cheese, curado, you leave it for at least 50 days; for larger cheese, the process takes two to six months. Herbs can be added, such as rosemary or oregano, pimiento or black pepper.
Next it’s time to meet the Iberian piglets – born just four days ago, they confirm my non-meat-eating beliefs more than ever. I make sure my kids, entranced by the sight, realised these little darlings could be the jamon on their tostada one day. WARNING: gratuitous cute animal photo.
Now the moment we’ve all been waiting for: after milking the goats, and playing with them, seeing how the cheese is made, and all those old implements, it’s our turn. Maria Jesus heats up some fresh goat’s milk (the very same stuff that we extracted earlier, or so I like to think), and adds the vegetable rennet, made from a plant called cardoon. The milk starts to thicken and she “cuts” it with the spoon, and then when it has curdled, and gone nice and lumpy, the curds are separated from the whey and we’re each given a little plastic pot-full of cheese to squash down. The process looks so simple, with only two ingredients – milk and rennet – but obviously you need to know exactly what level of heat to use, what temperature the milk needs to get up to, and when to add the rennet.
We squish our cheeses to get the whey out – a top activity with my children, unsurprisingly – then we pop lids on, write our names and listen to Maria Jesus’ careful instructions to keep the cheeses in the fridge, and turn and drain them every day for five days, adding salt, then put them on a plate covered with clingfilm. The children’s cheeses didn’t make it home in one piece, as queso fresco - fresh home-made goat’s cheese – is just too delicious to resist, but I kept mine for a month and when I finally gave in, it was fabulous (if I say so myself). And anyway, food tastes so much better when you know exactly where it came from, and what a happy, free life those goats lead.
Maria Jesus is a mine of information about everything from the history of the area, to which types of her cheese sell best where (the markets are king), to her collection of philosophical frases (sayings) on the farm’s website. She is an immensely kind woman, and generous with her time, which makes this a perfect family day out in my book.
A visit to Finca los Robledos costs 2 euros; cheese-tasting 3 euros without wine, or 5 euros with wine; visit with cheese-making 5 euros; visit, cheese-making and tasting 10 euros; and all the above with lunch (goat stew, naturally), 20 euros. They’re well set-up to cater for groups, with a large dining room.
You can buy Monte Robledo cheese at the Monte Robledo shop, Calle Concordia 18, Aracena (tel 959 128 994); in the Alameda organic market in Seville on the second Saturday of every month, and the Aljarafe organic Market in Gines on the third Saturday of every month.
You can see Maria Jesus making cheese in this video.