Iris Schot is Dutch and the winner of the “Fromager 2019” award for “Best Cheese Platter 2019,” which was presented at the professional Gastronomie 2018 event in Amsterdam last November. She won the prize with her selection of four Spanish cheeses. In this interview, she explains why she is such a supporter of Spanish products.
To begin with, which cheeses won the “Best Fromager 2019,” award and why did you select them?
First of all thank you for this interview. When I decided to take part in the competition, I wanted to do something different. Most people in the Netherlands know many of the famous French cheeses, as well as some cheeses that are made here in the Netherlands. And I don’t mean Gouda. But the Dutch don’t really know much about Spanish cheeses. So my idea was to combine my two passions: cheese and Spain.
And why Spain? First of all, because the language is beautiful. I am trying to learn Spanish. But mostly because I have worked in restaurants here with one or even three Michelin stars. However, when I went to Disfrutar (two stars) and ABaC (three stars) restaurants in Barcelona, the level of gastronomy was much higher than here in the Netherlands. So yes, I hope, when my Spanish is good enough, that I will one day be able to do an internship in a one or two Michelin star restaurant in Spain.
The cheeses that won the competition were:
Monte Enebro: A goat’s cheese with an ash layer and Roquefort fungus. It’s a cheese with power and the fungus makes it spicy, so your mouth wakes up immediately. That’s why I started with the Monte Enebro.
Zwaluwgekwetter: It’s a cow’s milk cheese from the Netherlands that’s only six to eight weeks old. I removed the crust by myself and let the cheese rest in Liquor 43. Zwaluwgekwetter is a cheese with some bitterness in its flavor. But the Spanish Liquor 43 made the crust a little bit sweet, and the combination with the bitterness was a really good match.
Romero: A cheese that was first made in Spain and now also here in the Netherlands, but from cow’s milk. It has been aged for eight to ten months. Romero also has a crust of dried rosemary.
Torta del Casar: A cheese made from sheep’s milk. I was very impressed by this cheese. I think it’s one the best cheeses from Spain. Unfortunately, most people here in the Netherlands have never heard of Torta del Casar.
Queso Azul: A cheese made from cow’s, goat’s and sheep’s milk — depending on which animals produced more milk. Cabrales is a good cheese, but very spicy. And you can still taste the cheese an hour later. Queso Azul is a bit friendlier, and a great cheese to end with.
All the cheeses have spicy, sweet, bitter, and salty flavors.
The cheese plate had to be served in combination with an alcoholic drink, so, I made my own cocktail. I served 2 spoonfuls of Licor 43 with a garnish of rosemary and orange in a wine glass. And I finished with Parelwijn, a Dutch sparkling wine. The idea of the cocktail was to give the jury a refreshing drink that would allow the cheeses to take center stage. And the sparkling wine ensures a clean, rinsed feeling in the mouth.
What is your absolute favorite Spanish cheese, and why?
You can always wake me up for Queso Manchego. And then as second, I would choose Torta del Casar, because I was so impressed by the many different flavors of this cheese. But there are so many Spanish cheeses I still want to taste! So, I will not be surprised if my favorite Spanish cheese someday changes.
What do you think about the Spanish cheese scene and what do you value most about it? Have you had the chance to travel throughout Spain and get to know the origins of any cheeses?
The thing I value most about the Spanish cheese scene is that they (cheese makers) have more guts than in the cheese scene here in the Netherlands. All the cheeses that are made here in the Netherlands are made from one kind of milk. But in Spain you see cheeses that are made from goat’s, cow’s and ewe’s milk. That gives cheeses different kinds of flavors. And some Spanish cheeses have more flavor, and much more temperament.
Is there any Spanish cheese producer in particular that you would like to visit?
I hope that I can find the time to take a road trip through Spain. To visit the Cava region and Cava wineries. I would combine that with a visit to cheese farms in the area. And then, especially, the smaller cheese farmers. Then hopefully I’ll be able to taste some new Spanish cheeses.
What other Spanish cheeses would you like to include on your cheese platter?
If I can find a better soft cow’s cheese than the Dutch Zwaluwgekwetter, I will definitely change it. Time will tell. I will first have to taste many more Spanish cheeses to achieve the perfect match on a cheese platter.
Beyond cheese, at your restaurant there are also other products from the Spanish pantry (Ibérico ham, Spanish wines…). Are there any other products? What you like most about them?
The restaurant where I’m currently working has acorn-fed Ibérico ham on the menu as a starter, and it also uses chorizo in a dish. Furthermore, we have more than 18 different Spanish wines, and 12 Spanish wines on the wine list. In March, I am going to switch to another restaurant.
What wine would you choose to go with your winning platter?
I would suggest a beautiful Cava. I recommend a Cava Brut Nature, Extra Brut or Brut. This cava has the least amount of sugar. This means that the cava gives a refreshing feeling in the mouth, and it is therefore a perfect match for cheese. My favorite cava is Recaredo Brut Nature in combination with rich flavored cheese.
Is there a Spanish chef you particularly like, and why?
That would be Jordi Roca. The way he thinks about dessert is unbelievable. But I am also a big fan of his two brothers. I have a reservation at El Celler De Can Roca. And yes, of course, I will be the fan girl who will ask all the three brothers to sign my copy of the El Celler de Can Roca book.
I am also a huge fan of Eduard Xatruch, Oriol Castro and Mateu Casañas, the three chefs at Disfrutar, who blow me away with their 25 courses. Also, hopefully this year there will be an opportunity to go to Azurmendi in Bilbao and meet Eneko Atxa.
What would be your professional dream?
My professional dream would be doing what I am doing now, for as long as possible. I have just started a new challenge in February as maître fromager in a three Michelin star restaurant, Inter Scaldes. My ambitions are growing along with my knowledge of cheese and wine. I want to taste more and more cheeses — create more and more perfect combinations of wine and cheese.
I also want to become more proficient in the Spanish language, so that I can do internships in the most beautiful restaurants in Spain. And I think I will end up with a small cheese shop in the Netherlands, which I could combine with giving cheese tastings.
Would you rather work in a Spanish-oriented restaurant in Holland, or in Spain?
For sure work in Spain. So many restaurants in Spain have such a high gastronomic level. There are so many restaurants with Michelin stars. And every restaurant has its own style. Yes, I’m a huge fan of the Michelin-starred restaurants in Spain!
Text and Photos: Spain Trade Commission in The Hague, Iris Schot and JC de Marcos /@ICEX.