The Unlikely Black Market that Preserved Spanish Cheesemaking

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Spain has lived through the Visigoths, the Moors, and the 700-year Reconquista. They went on to conquer giant swaths of the new world and became the second most-spoken language in the world. But they have a fraught history with cheese. Many people these days take Spanish cheeses for granted, and probably eat Spanish cheeses regularly. Sure, throw a Manchego here on this tray, or a Drunken Goat on this board, but what about the history of these foods?


What a lot of people don’t realize is that most cheesemaking was illegal in Spain even just 40 years ago. In contrast, they are now one of the most prominent cheese producers in the world. So, what happened? How could something so essential to cuisine become something that was banned?


During the 1960s, with the fascist economy failing, Franco decreed that all dairy producers in the country must produce 10,000 liters of milk a day. If your dairy produced fewer liters than that, you were not allowed to legally operate your dairy or sell your products. Unfortunately, most of the cheesemakers at the time were only producing about half of the required quota. Some cheesemakers sold their land and moved to the cities to find work. But others defied the law, selling their cheeses at black markets that operated in the early morning hours. It was risky. Through these risky ventures, the knowledge and enjoyment of cheese was kept alive.


Franco’s death in 1975 brought about the demise of the dairy law, but it took time. In fact, Spain didn’t move to decentralize production  until 1985, and the black market continued for an additional ten years after Franco’s death. However, the new policy came as a relief to many. Finally, farmers could openly produce and sell cheese again. Thankfully, the underground market had kept cheesemaking traditions alive through the 1960s and 70s, and cheesemaking was able to make a comeback. Now, Spanish cheese is an international commodity that flourishes in the global economy, and you would never guess that cheese was actually illegal just 40 years ago.


This July, we’re celebrating the survival and reemergence of Spanish cheese! Join us at Jungle Jim’s International Market at Eastgate or Fairfield to sample some delicious cheeses, learn how to choose the best cheeses for your cheese plates, and ask the experts for recommendations. Stop by anytime during July and ask about Spanish cheese. We’ll see you soon.

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