Sometimes someone makes you think.
I mean, really think-- reflect, ponder… whatever you prefer to call it. When Rubén Valbuena of Granja Cantagrullas first contacted me about hosting us for a cheese tasting and tour of his farm, I was happy to have another excuse to escape Madrid’s smog for clean country air. I could envision the visit already—a few minutes of bubbly introductions, a quick tour of the farm, tasting some excellent cheeses, buying some excellent cheeses, thank you, gracias, thank you, kiss-kiss and adios.
But not this time. Rubén didn’t give us some big, enthusiastic reception. There were no falsities, no questions about our backgrounds, and no information about his own. Those things would come later. No, it was more of a quiet greeting, then he added, “I’m gonna fry up some of this new cheese we’re making here.” And he did. A butane tank, a frying pan, and some damn good cheese, and we were suddenly past that awkward introductory moment.
Fun, Creative, and Healthy
He showed us around the Cantagrullas Dairy Farm, the first of its kind in Ramiro, Valladolid, one of the poorest parts of the region and, according to the census, home to a shrinking population of 49 (closer to 5 in the winter Rubén assured us).
He explained his cheese making process and how he is one of the only producers of a raw milk Castilian Sheep cheese (for which he needed a special permission to produce). He demonstrated the cheeses they were experimenting with—adding bright, flavorful spices like paprika or lavender to create new tastes and textures. We questioned his decisions to buy land in Ramiro (it was much cheaper) and how they installed electricity (lots of digging), but I wanted to know why Rubén and his wife Asela had chosen to make cheese. His answers were far from typical.
What I took away from our visit was something that Rubén repeated throughout the day: question everything.
It is what he does on a daily basis and also what he did every step of the way while building his business. When quoted an obscene amount for a special yogurt cooler he questioned its exclusivity and then made his own from an old refrigerator. When one of his cheeses showed an undesirable bacterial strain (that most producers would just leave in) he wanted to know where it was coming from. Instead of sending samples to one laboratory, he sent them to various, and, interestingly, received different results from each one. Trusting the worst results, he worked to eliminate the strain until all lab tests came back negative.
Perhaps his inquisitive nature is a reflection of his own background. While finishing his PHD and later working as a geologist, he lived with his wife and family in France, Brazil, and various other countries in South America. He also has four young children that surely keep his mind sharp with their own curious questions.
Challenging the Norms
At the young age of 31 Rubén is a father, husband, and entrepreneur-- and while many people around the world have families, degrees, and businesses by 31, it is not the model in Spain. It was refreshing to meet someone who broke the Spanish paradigm of not asking questions and simply accepting the status quo. I hope that, if anything, this recession gets more young people thinking and questioning the way things work in Spain.
Now, for the best part-- the cheese tasting. It was wonderful to say the least. Rubén treated us like royalty as we chowed down on over 6 different cheeses from the soft queso fresco to the harder, matured selections. We also tried the outstanding Cantagrullas yogurt—a deliciously creamy and acidic yogurt that was unlike anything I’d ever tried.
As we sampled we continued to talk about life, and how we all agreed that time is best spent doing something that we enjoy—even when that means trading in things like university fame and a good salary. I couldn’t help but agree. After the tasting Rubén offered to accompany us to a local brewery—but not before feeding us a proper lunch. We protested, he had been generous enough already, but he flipped the butane back on and before long we were enjoying a simple lunch of fried eggs with creamy cheese and a green pepper relish.
Later at the brewery, with his wife and four kids in tow, we got a glimpse of Rubén the family man over a crisp beer and some more Cantagrullas cheese. On the way back to Madrid we were all a bit quiet, reflecting on a fact we had forgotten-- that passion, intelligence, modesty, hard work, and adaptability can, in fact, combine to create success (even amidst the “horrendous” recession in Spain). Rubén has done it—and I’m sure we’ll be next.
Read about the visit from my fellow cheese enthusiast Lauren at her blog Sobremesa in Spain.
Visit Granja Cantagrullas Here:
Quesería Granja Cantagrullas
Camino del Calvario, S/N
Paraje de las Parrillas
Ramiro 47.453 Valladolid (España)
Contact and Order Products Here:
To see the project with your own eyes (in Spanish but incredibly beautiful no matter what):
[vimeo http://vimeo.com/27984548 w=500&h=400]