December 5, 2017 3:28PM

How Black Markets Saved Spanish Cheesemaking (Plus, a Cookie Sequel)

Spain is now known to food lovers as one of the great cheese producers of the world, but it wasn't always so. At one of my favorite websites, Atlas Obscura, Jackie Bryant tells the story of how "one of Europe’s oldest and most varied artisanal cheesemaking cultures... was once entirely illegal. And its survival can be largely attributed to a black market of underground cheese."

The villain in the piece is dictator Francisco Franco, who ruled from 1939 until his death in 1975, his policies on this subject lingering on for some years thereafter. With a taste for centralized command, Franco wanted to impose mass production and its efficiencies of scale on the dairy sector: 

As part of this policy, quotas were enacted that outlawed milk production under 10,000 liters a day. This made small dairies and cheesemaking productions... illegal. To comply with the law, they had to sell their milk to larger companies.

Enric Canut, a Barcelona-born cheesemaker, agricultural engineer, and dairy consultant, recalls a catalogue of Spanish cheeses compiled by the government in 1964. “Five years later,” he says, “most of those same cheeses were illegal!”

So traditional cheesemaking went underground. Especially in independent-minded rural areas like Galicia, most farmers quietly defied the government. They would report milk as having been personally consumed by the farm family itself, even if that meant by the hundreds of gallons a week. And they would meet in covert open-air markets -- at times like 5 in the morning -- to sell their wares beyond the view of inspectors. 

Canut later reported to the government that at least 25% of daily milk production in Spain went towards making illegal cheese. It was a remarkable refutation of the government’s policy. Franco had imagined large, industrial operations. Instead Spaniards enthusiastically supported small, black market cheesemakers who, as Canut remembers from visits throughout Spain in the 1970s, sometimes kept their cheese in actual caves....

Franco’s policies were slowly phased out, and, in 1985, dairies of all sizes became legal. Canut estimates that in a decade, Spain went from having almost no small dairies to having nearly 1,000—a combination of upstarts and illicit dairies that had been producing all along.

Fom there, another 20 years brings us to the current runaway success story of specialty Spanish cheeses, which figure on the menu at many Michelin-starred restaurants. Read the whole piece here.

P.S. Two weeks ago in this space I quoted an Atlas Obscura report on how here in the U.S. the FDA's trans fat ban was making life hard for the little business that bakes Baltimore's fudge-draped Berger cookie. Shortly after that the Baltimore Sun in its own follow-up report revealed a couple of further twists: while the company's frosting supplier had managed to solve its trans fat problem, it did so in a way that exposed the cookie maker to a new regulatory trip-up. I explain in this Overlawyered post.