Hooked On Cheese: Santa Gadea

As the number of large, corporate-run dairy farms continues to grow worldwide, successful small family dairies are becoming increasingly rare. Granted, family cheesemaking has always involved a lot of hard work for little pay – small dairies are usually located in rural areas and are often understaffed by a few stalwart cheesemakers who take pride in the family business and genuinely love their own cheese. But as it becomes more and more difficult to compete with corporations, my support of and respect for the lil' guy only continues to grow.

One such small dairy for which I have enormous admiration is the Santa Gadea goat farm, located in Castilla y Léon, an autonomous community in north-western Spain. This dairy came to my attention when I had the good fortune of being introduced to Vice President Marta Milans at a cheese distributor show a couple of years ago. Marta's family's small format goat cheeses tasted incredible, and when she told me about her mother and father running this forward-thinking dairy, she beamed with an infectious pride. Now my family also makes great cheese on a small farm, so naturally I knew exactly how she felt. And when she brought out her iPhone and started showing me pictures of the goats and her mom and pop, I just knew I had to know more about this up-and-coming dairy and the cheese they make.

Santa Gadea is produced on the only farm in Europe that is 100% sustainable and 100% organic. The Milans family sets an impressive precedent: they've developed their own biotechnology to reuse whey from the cheese factory in their composting, created their own green electricity to power the cheese plant and planted over 120,000 trees on their farm to help absorb CO2 emissions. The entirely green, state-of-the-art design of the cheesemaking facility and barn, as well as the organic feed for the goats, creates an exceptional quality of life for the herd and therefore an extremely high quality of milk for the cheese. I've said it before, and I'll say it again: you must start with great milk to produce great cheese – a  principle the Milans are obviously committed to.

As for the cheese's taste: in spite of being a goat's milk cheese, Santa Gadea has a very minimal "goaty" bite. Their Red Label (aged five weeks) is soft ripened and pasteurized, with a smooth flavor that intensifies as the cheese ages and has hints of coconut when the cheese is young. The aging process takes place in caves with automatic control of temperature and humidity, and this highly controlled environment coaxes out the subtle flavor layers. As the cheese ages, a distinct smokiness develops – a pungent kick with a soft aftertaste that is slightly acidic but very pleasant. I'd recommend pairing the small-format Red Label Santa Gadea with an organic mixed green salad and a good, aged vinegar from Jerez; or, alternately, you could present it with some thick, raw honey and fig bread for dessert.

Funnily enough, I had known Marta for over a year – and exchanged tons of cheese talk with her – before I found out she was a successful actress in addition to being a cheesemaker. She was a star in ABC's primetime show Killer Women and has appeared in both big-budget Hollywood movies and popular Spanish-language television series. I never would have guessed it; all she ever talks about is her family, their farm and her belief in their cheese! She even once told me that her most important job is to sell Santa Gadea cheese in America in order to increase environmental awareness and to support her parents back in Spain. So while she may be a rising star, to me she will always be a cheese gal, trying to do the right thing for her family and the planet.

Additional reporting by Madeleine James.