Within the Serra da Estrela Natural Park in Portugal’s Centro region are mainland Portugal’s highest mountain peaks. There are also shepherds who ply the slopes and make a very special cheese, called Queijo do Serra, or DOP Serra de Estrela cheese.
Those shepherds are a dying breed. The life is difficult. It is said that there are only 10-20 left.
The plight of these shepherds is expertly profiled in Andrea Smith’s article for CataVino, The Shepherds of Serra da Estrela: A Dying Craft Threatening Portuguese Cheese
But what truly left the biggest impression on me after visiting the mountains was being able to see first-hand the last of a dying Old World group of people, the shepherds of the Serra. The ultimos pastores are thought to be as little as 10-20 left working on the mountain, many of them in their late 60s and 70s. Their solitary work and life is quite a hard one, starting as early as 5am with their herd to roam up and down the dangerously steep, rocky terrain of the mountain until after sunset. Many live in dark, crudely made stone and thatch huts in the middle of nowhere. They have to endure baking in the bright sun of summer and freezing in mounds of snow through winter with their soul companions being the sheep, goats and their faithful Serra sheepdog.
At the end of her article Andrea asks, “Is the end to this craft inevitable and we should go visit the Serra to watch these peaceful herdsmen and experience the “cheese of their labor” before they’re all gone? Or is there still time to keep it alive? I want your opinion.”
Of course, if we all went there to taste and buy a bit of this fabulous cheese, then we might extend the life of this hardy band of artisans. We could, in some small way, not only extend an economical hand toward folks who do honest, hard work with fabulous results, we would be voting against a system we’ve let take over our food production in the United States, perhaps slapping back the fat, greasy sausage fingers of the Industrial Crap Food Producers who have a monopoly on cheap, empty calories there.
So, I’m going to tell you how you can help in a small way. Baby steps. By vacationing. And vacationing well.
When I visited the Serra da Estrela, I stayed at a rather stunning place where I was able to wake up to a big, spooned-out-of-the-crust helping of Queijo do Serra; a round of it was always on the breakfast buffet. That’s it on the right. (Ok, It’s a little empty—I ate before taking the picture, but you get the idea.)
You see, Queijo do Serra, in its young form, is an unctuous, spreadable cheese that tastes of the land from which it comes, of fresh mountain herbs and grasses balanced with the buttery tang of ewe’s milk. It startled me with goodness. The cheese is coagulated with thistle—and that, they tell me, is why it stays soft for a good while. You must cut a whole in the round, and there it is, all soft and spreadable and tasting of the mountains around you.
Now, just in case you’re thinking, “I’ll just run down to my local cheese shop and grab a hunk of DOP Serra da Estrela” you might think twice. Much of it comes over on boat, then gets cut and wrapped by the stores that ruin cheeses that need to be stored in their natural form. You must go to the source to get this cheese to taste what it’s really about.
But—how much of a sacrifice is vacationing here? Above is a picture of the Serra de Estrela and the town of Manteigas taken from Penhas Douradas. Wouldn’t you enjoy a week on this plateau—strolling, kayaking, skiing and eating well?
The fact is you can stay near where I stood to take this picture and eat as much Queijo do Serra as you want for breakfast. You’ll stay at a recently remodeled mountain paradise with lots of facilities for your kids and for your well-being. If you’re into locally produced artisan objects, there’s plenty around, including the rugs on the floors. The furniture is home made. Expertly. And along with the Queijo you can have some Juniper jelly. It’s quite good.
So, if the kind of place where you can swim in pool or kayak or hike the trails around this mountain hideout, you might want to check into Casa das Penhas Douradas
And if you go, you can ski near the Casa, too.
Penhas Douradas is named after a couple of granite outcrops containing mica poking from this high plateau which give off a golden glow when the sun sets. There are also some spectacular quartz outcrops as well.
And, if you take a short walk you would swear there’s a giant monkey looking over the valley in the middle of this picture:
So go. Save the cheese. Or just be able to tell your kids you had cheese when real people produced it.
And, by the way, the shepherds in the Italian region of Puglia are losing their ability to make cheese as well.