Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Cheeeeeese! Feria del Queso in Trujillo

I broke one of my own rules and planned a vacation during the Rota feria. But! I have two very good excuses. One, the feria dates have been thrown off this year by the lateness of Easter - Sevilla's Feria de Abril was at the beginning of May and Rota's was before Sevilla's, not to mention El Puerto's is sadly over the American Memorial Day long weekend, and I'll be traveling for most of that, as well. Both trips were planned well before the feria dates were released. 

Two, and possibly a far better reason, I missed the traditional Rota Feria de la Primavera for a feria dedicated to one of my very deepest loves - cheese! And this trip was a long time in the making. 

Flashback to two very jetlagged newlyweds, their small dog, multiple bags and a rental car full of giddy and groggy optimism as they drove from Madrid to El Puerto de Santa María nearly three years ago... 

On our very first day of living together in Spain, I sat shotgun as Graham navigated the long drive from the capital to our new town in the south. To pass the time, I followed along in our recently purchased Eyewitness Travel Spain guidebook. As we passed a medieval hilltop city, I read aloud about Trujillo - birthplace to conquistadors, site of a moorish fortress, and host to an annual cheese fair. Upon reading that last bit, I immediately proclaimed that we would one day return to Trujillo. 

And we did! Painfully aware that this year would probably be our last opportunity to go, we rallied some friends (some of the same people we went to Rome with over Thanksgiving) and rented a house in Santa Cruz de la Sierra, a pueblo just outside of Trujillo, for the long weekend of the Feria Nacional del Queso, the National Cheese Fair. 

This proved to be a great choice. During the day, we wined and cheesed in Trujillo's iconic Plaza Mayor, under the unwavering gaze of Francisco Pizarro. 

Torta del Casar is one of the stars of the festival. In order to meet the Denominación de Origen Protegida requirements, it must be made in Extremadura from a particular type of sheep's milk.

The inside is soft and perfect for spreading on bread or crackers.

We wandered the busy streets, which were flooded with other cheese-loving holiday makers, ducking into small shops or under cafe umbrellas, looking for shade and cool drinks. 

We explored the hilltop fortress that had initially caught my eye from the highway, taking in the views that stretch across the vastness that is Extremadura, one of Spain's most remote regions. 

The afternoons and evenings at the house in Santa Cruz de la Sierra were spent with our friends on the spacious patio, eating, drinking, and relaxing, as children and dogs ran around the property's olive trees. Our last night, we snacked on cheese bought from the festival as we waited for the grill to be ready for barbecueing. Later, after the kids were in bed and several bottles of wine were consumed, we gathered around the enormous dining room table to play Cards Against Humanity and giggle like maniacs. 

Here are a few thoughts and tips for the Feria Nacional del Queso in Trujillo:

-Book early. Trujillo is a small town and the feria lures many tourists. We booked several months in advance and there were few options for such a large group (8 adults, 5 kids, 3 dogs). We did enjoy staying in little Santa Cruz de la Sierra - it was rustic and peaceful. The main square, including this gentleman and his horse having a drink at the local bar, was adorable. But if you want to be in Trujillo, you'll need to book even farther in advance. 

-Know the ticket system. Samples of cheese and wine are doled out in exchange for tickets, which can be purchased from several booths on the perimeter of the Plaza Mayor, where the festival is held. The lines for the tickets can be long, so if you're going multiple days, stock up on tickets as you are leaving after the first day and avoid the line the next morning. I'm sure it changes slightly year-to-year, but this year a book of 10 tickets for either beverages or cheese cost 5€. If you tire of nibbles and sips, use multiple tickets to buy a plate of cheese or a bottle of wine. 

-Beware of the sun. It was only in the high 70s/low 80s (high 20s in Celsius) when we went, but due to the slight altitude and clear skies, there was a serious risk for sunburn. Avoid looking like a typical lobster red tourist by wearing sunscreen and a hat. 

Graham braving the sun for a quick snap with Paco.

-Bring a cooler. All of that delicious cheese that you can sample is also available for sale. You better believe a selection of my favorites made it back to El Puerto with me, thanks to remembering to pack a cooler. Also, don't forget to pick up other products that the region is known for, specifically cured meats, paprika, and acorn liquor, at any of the many small shops throughout town. 

Loved this one! I'm slowing chipping away at the hunk in my fridge.

For this self-professed cheese enthusiast, it was a great long weekend. I was able to sample queso from all over Spain, and even some from Portugal and Italy. Not to mention Trujillo is an interesting, history-filled little city that is surrounded by plenty of rural loveliness - olive groves, rolling hills, herds of cows. Throw in good friends and plenty of wine and it's a winning combination. 

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