Crimea: The Colombian Dream Farm

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We met Jorge and and his wife Olga Lucia at a grocery store on the side of the road, right across from the small house we had rented on the side of a mountain in central Colombia. They were there to pick up me and my partner Austen for a visit to their small goat cheese farm about an hour outside of Bogota. Jorge and Olga Lucia’s son, Gustavo, and granddaughter showed up shortly afterwards, and we piled in to two cars and drove 45 minutes to lunch.

On the way to the restaurant, Jorge explained to me that the difference between agriculture in Colombia and the U.S. can be essentialized in one way: in the U.S., farmers have access to all of the technology that they might want, but they usually work their own land. In Colombia, farmers have access to much more manpower (and womanpower, exemplified in Jorge’s female head cheesemaker), but can’t generally afford to buy the fancy machinery we use in the United States. Because of this difference, Jorge and Olga Lucia’s farm, Crimea, is run by a family of ‘campesinos’, while Jorge still works in Bogota as a consultant to support his family. Jorge’s role at the farm is that of administrator and overseer, visiting on weekends and whenever else necessary to make sure that everything is running smoothly. This sort of farm organization is common in Columbia, in which the landowner usually works another job while employees run the farm.

This doesn’t mean that Antonio, Jorge’s employee of 20 years, doesn’t have a huge role in the farm. Jorge continually stressed that although he and Olga Lucia were very involved in the farm work, it was Antonio who had built the farm into what it is today. Jorge and Olga Lucia are the conceptual background of the farm and take pride in the work they have done to create a smoothly running, self sufficient, beautiful and healthy farm (as they should; Jorge mentioned that in Crimea’s 31 years of existence, they had planted thousands of trees). However, Antonio is the one who milks and feeds the goats, keeps the farm in working order, and plants all of those trees. Antonio’s daughter is now the head cheesemaker, having learned from Jorge.

Crimea creates a few different cheeses, two of which we had the pleasure to taste. They make primarily fresh, pasteurized goats milk cheeses, some pressed in to rounds, some bathed in salty water to make feta, and some plain spreadable cheese. Jorge also plays around with other more aged cheeses–but these are just for the family. My favorite of his cheeses was the soft and spreadable fresh goats cheese, which had the rich and ‘goaty’ flavor that is often hard to find in pasteurized fresh cheeses.

The true highlight of our visit to Crimea, though, was seeing how well Jorge, Olga Lucia, and Antonio care for their goats and land. They have a careful rotation of eleven small pastures for their herd of 30 goats, which allows them to replenish the health of their land while also keeping their goats very happy and healthy. They are constantly working to find better ways to take care of their land and animals, and we talked extensively about their evolving philosophies on land usage and goat rearing. I was beyond impressed by the organization and thought that went in to every aspect of their farm and cheese business. Although Americans might be skeptical about the division of labor that comes with the Colombian farming system of landowner and live-in worker, Antonio and his family were clearly happy and very comfortable, and Crimea’s non-technological, labor-driven organization allowed for much more ecological, land-healthy and goat-healthy choices than many American farms have. Of course, this is also due to Jorge and Olga Lucias careful study on how best to organize their farm. No matter what, I have immense respect for the way Crimea is run and the impeccable cheeses that come from the system Jorge and Olga Luica have created.

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Formatgeria la Seu: A Haven for Spanish Farmers Cheese

The Formatgeria la Seu is an easy to miss hole in the wall, a small, sparsely decorated, and deliciously cool cave in the middle of sweaty Barcelona. Immediately upon entering, I was drawn to the walk in cooler in the front of the store, stocked with cheeses displayed like single jewels, making you want to reach out and touch. The owner, Katherine McLaughlin, spoke English with a strong Scottish accent, a welcome surprise to me after having spent the day struggling with my limited Spanish. She started the store 15 years ago, after visiting Neal’s Yard in London (the mother of all cheese stores), and thinking, quote, ‘Shit, this is what I want to do’. She only stocks Spanish cheeses, due to a combination of the hassle of importing and a passion for having a close relationship with the producers she works with–she regularly visits and speaks to the producers she buys from, and isn’t afraid to give them honest advice on what their cheese needs. She had just reopened from her annual month long closing, when she usually goes to visit farmers around Spain to work with them on their cheese, and told me her stock was still limited–but all the same, there was plenty to taste.

I sat down in the back of the store to have a cheese tasting. She poured me a glass of her store’s personal red wine, a light and easy red that paired well with all of the cheeses we tasted without overpowering anything, handed me a basket of crusty bread, and the adventure began.

My plate included six delicious Spanish cheeses, all on the young side due to her recent reopening, but all clearly very well sourced and cared for. One of my favorites was El Petit Ot, a perfectly balanced goat cheese from Catalonia with a thick and creamy paste, named after the cheesemaker’s first son, Ot. We then tasted Arzua-ulloa, a cows milk cheese from Galicia with a soft paste and a hint of tartness to its flavor, another cheese that melted lusciously on the tongue. Valdeon was a mixed milk cow and goat cheese, from Castella Illeo. A dry and crumbly blue, it had an almost slightly powdery mouthfeel and a rather mild flavor devoid of any of the sharp acidity that you often find in blues. Cascarral was a mild semi-firm sheep cheese, in the Manchego family (but made with milk from sheep of a different race than Is used in manchego), from Burgos.

Up next was Mao, a smooth and intensely salty raw cow milk cheese with the consistency of an aged cheddar, but a mouth puckering salty punch that is incomparable–somehow the cheesemaker succeeded in this intense saltiness without going overboard, sending me back for more and more. Mao is rubbed with oil and paprika. Rotllets is a lactic acid goat milk cheese from Leon, with hardly any penicillin rind and a more mild flavor than most young goats milk cheeses, but a tiny hint of tartness. She paired these cheeses with a sweet quince paste called codonyat, a Catalonian favorite, as well as orange and raspberry preserves.

After the meal, she handed me a scoop of formatgelat, a smoky cheese ice cream made with a cheese named San Simon da Costa, gave me a recommendation for a wine store, and told me to come back to see her–which I will definitely do multiple times before leaving Barcelona.