Andalucian Road Trip: Day 1 – Cheese and Castles

Quesos Sierra Sur

We only had to drive about 57 minutes from Jaen to get to our first stop – a cheese factory. We had to make a choice between a bodega, a Roman cistern or a cheese factory. With siesta we could only choose one and we chose the cheese place because we have never been to one before (while we have been to bodegas and loads of Roman things). Since it’s a very small “factory” they charged us 1 euro each to take the tour – to make up for lost cheese-mongering-time.

They gave us shoe-covers and then we walked to 3 quite-small rooms.

The first room is where they make the cheese. They only make cheese from goat and sheep milk – never cow milk. They had a huge tube that pumps thousands of liters of raw milk into a giant vat (you can see the tube coming out of a window in the picture). The milk is pasteurized in a series of winding tubes then pumped into a vat. The vat heats it to create the curds.

They then pour the curds and whey (leftover watery milk) into round plastic molds.  You can see them scraping the curds into small molds. In the foreground of the picture you can see cheese cloths in the molds – this is uncommon, they usually just put it in the molds as is. 

Behind all this is a huge pneumatic press. They put a lid on all the molds then stack all them up sideways. The press pushes them all into each other and the rest of the whey drips out.

They take the cheeses out of the molds (they sort-of break apart at the side so you can remove it easily). Then they put it in a dipping-vat-thing (surely there’s a better term). The vat is full of hot salty water but you can put fruit or flavoring inside to infuse the cheese. You boil that together for a while  – this is the only part where it’s salted or flavored.

Now you have queso fresco – what many people buy in the US and eat crumbled on salads. So you can package it as is or you can move it to a refrigerated room. Here the cheese can wait for 1-2 years to become the good, hard cheese. The edges of the mold had chevron-striping that imprints on the edges of the cheese. This eventually turns into a natural rind (the hard stuff on the outside of cheese). This is a totally natural rind – some rinds you cannot eat, but these ones are 100% natural. It’s basically the cheese’s natural process of enzymes breaking down and bacteria binding with it.

They flip the cheese almost once a day (all of the cheeses) to keep everything growing naturally.

Finally we went to taste some of the cheese. We’ve had loads of goat cheese since we moved to Spain but never sheep’s cheese – it’s much better. So we bought a small chunk – she assured us we could actually keep it out of the refrigerator for the rest of our road trip – it would look bad but would still be edible. The nice lady who worked there had worked there for 13 years and told us there were only 9 employees (3 of which are only delivery drivers). The whole tour was in Spanish so we learned new cheese-related words which was exciting.

Alcala la Real

We hit the road with our cheese and headed to Alcala la Real. There is a huge castle there called the Fortress of La Mota. It was built by Muslims in the 13th century. It defended against other Muslims, some Berbers and then was part of the Christian-Muslim hand-off that was the Reconquista.

The castle from the road. Military tower and area next to a city within the castle walls.

It was too big to see – just absolutely big. It looms over the whole city on a hill. It has 3-4 big towers, a huge cathedral and 2 different cities inside the walls. One tower even acted as a massive dungeon. There were also huge areas for wineries – Alcala la Real was considered to have the best wine in the area (during the Moorish times). The Alhambra granted them an exclusive 3-month-a-year contract where the only wine anyone drank was from Alcala la Real.

Because it’s full of old cities we could’ve wandered around the neighborhoods for hours. 

But it was just too big and hot. We saw as many towers as we could but didn’t have the energy to climb all the way into the dungeon. Dungeons aren’t even interesting, anyway, it was basically a huge pit everyone waited around in.

The castle has been in a few real conflicts. There was a replica trebuchet to show that real trebuchets had once been shot from it. Mostly, though, it was in many a siege. It was Muslim until Alfonso XI (a Christian king) sieged the Muslims inside for 9 months – the Christians finally managed to poison the wells with dead dogs, which is how the siege finally ended. This took place in 1340/1341.

They had talked so much about wine inside that we ended up buying a local bottle on the way out.

Sierra Subbetica and Zuheros

We drove to our hotel for the night – an old refurbished cortijo (farmhouse). It has traditional architecture for the area – huge open courtyards with habitations and workrooms around it. This one even had traditional Arab baths, a library and a restaurant in the old barn. 

Our pictures don’t do it any justice. If you want to see how beautiful it was maybe look at Booking. It wasn’t over 60 Euros for the night, either. From the cortijo we were able to walk through the Natural Park to the nearby city of Zuheros (pronounced Thweros). There’s a broken up old castle perched above the city.

This is such a small little town (population 900) you have to call ahead and arrange a private tour to see anything. Zuheros has also been voted on to the list of Most Beautiful Villages in Spain, partly due to it’s beautiful white houses and partly due to it’s gorgeous mountain vista.

We walked back to the hotel past a goat farmer, so we got to enjoy watching him feed his goats while his many guard dogs and puppies looked on.

For dinner we had our sheep cheese, which was doing just fine without refrigeration, and the local wine. It ended up being one of the more fantastic meals we’ve had. The kind cheese is known as “Curado”, and if you ever get a chance to try some you really should.

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