With a growing list of international recognitions and increasing export sales, Spanish cheese company Quesos La Vasco Navarra S.A. offers consumers artisanal cheeses with dependable quality, upheld by nearly forty years of experience
The green valleys and craggy mountains of Basque Country and northern Navarre boast centuries of cheese-making tradition. Here, small, individual producers coexist with large local cheese manufacturers like Quesos La Vasco Navarra S.A. Located in the town of Olazagutia, Navarre, Quesos La Vasco Navarra was founded in 1978 by the Perez de Albéniz family, as a producer of singular, artisanal cheeses. Today it specializes in a wide range of Albéniz brand pressed cheeses of different formats and levels of ripening, including those made with 100% goat or sheep's milk, and mixtures of goat, sheep and cow's milk, as well as DOP Idiazabal cheeses under the La Vasco Navarra brand. There is also a special V Navarra brand designating a 100% sheep's milk cheese that can be either smoked or not.
During the past couple of years, the company has surfaced on the international cheese circuit in a big way, with several of its cheeses taking home coveted medals at the prestigious annual World Cheese Awards, among other competitions. These accolades include bronzes for the 100% goat's milk cheese and the 85% cow-15% sheep's milk cheese at the 2015 World Cheese Awards, and gold and bronze medals at the same awards for the unsmoked and smoked versions of the V Navarra 100% sheep's milk cheese, respectively. Despite these wide-ranging achievements, the company's star cheese is indisputably its DOP Idiazabal, which won a super gold at the 2014 World Cheese Awards and a bronze in 2015. It was also one of three Spanish cheeses included on the 2015-2016 "75 Best Cheeses of the Year" list compiled by American cheese magazine, Culture, “The Word on Cheese”.
Foods and Wines from Spain talked to the company's Export Manager Jorge Marcos, to learn a little more about this Spanish cheese company, which produces somewhere between six and seven million kilograms of cheese a year, making it one of the largest producers of pressed cheeses in Spain.
Tell us a little bit about the company's history and cheese-making practices.
La Vasco Navarra was founded in 1978 by Sinforiano Perez de Albeniz for the purpose of making singular, artisanal cheeses. This tradition was the legacy of previous generations, who had been dedicated to the livestock business.
Over the years, the good reputation of these cheeses spread and the demand for our products grew, giving us the opportunity to grow along with it through new installations with increased production capacity, while always staying faithful to the company's driving philosophy of offering guaranteed high-quality products, made using the finest raw materials available.
Today we have both new installations and new warehouses – all of which have IFS certification –, which enable us to make nearly seven million kilograms of different types of cheese a year, one of which is DOP Idiazabal. We are one of the principal producers of Protected Denomination of Origin Queso Idiazabal, making more than 200,000 kilograms of this exquisite cheese a year. All of our cheeses are characterized by their uniformity, and excellent traceability, which makes it possible to track each and every one of our cheeses from the time the raw materials are collected to their sales point.
Quesos La Vasco Navarra's PDO Idiazabal cheese has made quite a name for itself internationally. Would you tell us how it is made, and why it's so special?
The DOP Idiazabal cheese is made from 100% raw sheep's milk from native Latxa and Carranzana sheep breeds. In keeping with ancient traditions, local shepherds lead these sheep up the mountains to graze in summer months, and back down again in winter when the cheese-making process begins. Quesos La Vasco Navarra uses its own fleet of trucks to collect milk daily from the large number of small farms that have been selected by our master cheese maker at the beginning of the year. All of them are located in Basque Country and Navarre, no more than 100 kilometers away from the cheese factory, which is located in the traditional cheese-producing area found near the Parque Natural de Urbasa.
The milk production from these breeds of sheep is small, yielding fewer liters of milk a day than other Spanish sheep breeds. As a result, the milk is more concentrated and rich, lending it the typical characteristics that define Queso Idiazabal.
The milk is heated slowly and curdled with natural rennet, then broken into curds. The whey is drained and the cheese is pressed, placed in round molds and left in salt water overnight. Our cheeses are typically ripened for four months, during which time they might be briefly smoked over beech wood, in accordance with local traditions common to the area around Urbasa.
How have you managed to preserve these traditional cheese-making techniques as you expand, innovate and modernize?
Our Idiazabal is made by respecting this traditional elaboration process while simultaneously employing all of the new technologies that are currently available. All of our installations have IFS certification – one of the most exacting around – which guarantees our master cheese maker's good practices. Our master cheese maker has been able to adapt all of the traditions involved in making Idiazabal cheese to the latest technology available today. This makes it possible (for us) to guarantee the quality and organoleptic characteristics of a cheese as singular as Idiazabal.
Why do you think your Idiazabal cheese received the Super Gold at the 2014 World Cheese Awards?
Quesos La Vasco Navarra believes in the know-how of its employees and the leadership of our master cheese maker, which allows us to make the highest quality products. When you're dealing with a cheese as special as Idiazabal ¬– made with the meticulous attention to detail that is characteristic of La Vasco Navarra S.A. ¬– it's not surprising that the jury evaluated our cheese so favorably, this being the first time that we had participated in this competition.
What is La Vasco Navarra's experience with exporting?
Exports account for around 5% of our total sales, with marked growth over the past three years. Our company is firmly committed to exporting and opening new markets, strengthening its presence and sales in the more than 25 countries where we are operating at this time. Our principal markets are currently Europe and North America, which together account for 60% of all exports. However, our products appear in new markets every year, and are currently available on five continents.
Considering our extremely wide range of products, we decide which ones to introduce in which market based on the area's needs and characteristics. For example, in the United States, the demand is for products with Denomination of Origin status, and our sheep's milk cheeses do very well, while other markets demand different products for reasons that are intrinsic to that market and its culture.
Meanwhile, in terms of export, we complement our extensive range of products with a selection of specialty cheeses from all over Spain, with more than 100 different product references from throughout the country.
The green valleys and craggy mountains of Basque Country and northern Navarre boast centuries of cheese-making tradition. Here, small, individual producers coexist with large local cheese manufacturers like Quesos La Vasco Navarra S.A