November 19, 2023
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The last time I fly fished in the Pyrenees (which was also the first time), one of the guides told me of a Spanish saying that translates as “they gave it to me with cheese”—which means, essentially, that you admit to being cheated.
Fond as I am of value-added dairy products, I took to the phrase immediately, repeating it over and over in my brain even before I could ascertain the details of its origin. Stumbling on the cobbles while attempting a stealthy approach to the river’s edge? Sorry, they gave it to me with cheese. Pulling the fly from the water’s surface just as a native brown trout was about to inhale it? Same refrain, with feeling.
Turns out that the phrase comes from La Mancha, a fertile plain indelibly associated in my mind with Cervantes’s Don Quixote, or he-who-tilted-at-windmills. The regional name likely derives from the Arabic al-mansha, or “birthplace.” Cheese lovers, of course, know it as the source of an aged queso with a buttery hue and a hard rind, made from whole sheep’s milk: manchego.
The pastures where the sheep graze are in the south-central part of the country, many hours’ drive from where the trout swim. But the area has been renowned for its wines and cheeses since medieval times. As the story goes, wine buyers from throughout the Iberian Peninsula would travel to La Mancha to sample the merchandise.
Vineyard owners of a particular bent would invite unwary buyers to taste their wares accompanied by a plate of manchego in olive oil. With their tongues intoxicated by fat and flavor, drinkers could scarcely be expected to discern a lower-quality wine from its betters. Hence the expression was born: darla con queso.
If fly fishing had been the sole reason for my visit to Spain, I might have been willing to let the story end there and, as is my habit, make tracks for the river. But facts are facts and I cannot deny my interests in both food and wine. Fact is, I love wine. And drinking wine makes me hungry.
When the phrase in question reentered the conversation, we were standing on a sunny hillside, far above the valley, overlooking many rows of vines. Our guide, Maria José, was describing the role her grandfather had played in their planting and tending, along with her own philosophy of winemaking. This apparently involved aging wine in oak, with minimal filtration and without the addition of sulfites, as well as a stubborn resistance against the urge to consume it straight from the barrel.
For the sake of comparison, Maria José poured two more conventionally produced bottles from the same region—denominated as Somontano, or “beneath the mountain.” For the sake of entertainment, she demonstrated the use of the porrón, a decanter with a long, pointed spout, intended to be held at arm’s length while a thin stream of wine burbles prettily into your mouth. In Homage to Catalonia, George Orwell called it “a dreadful thing,” reporting that he “went on strike and demanded a drinking-cup as soon as I saw a porrón in use.”
I did not follow Orwell’s example, having adequate glassware already at hand. But I did sample all three wines repeatedly, concluding that Maria José’s Vino Flor, bottled in July 2020, after nine months in oak, was by far the most lively and compelling. Between sips, I munched on picos de pan, a dry and crunchy snack resembling miniature breadsticks. When we finished drinking, lunch was still two hours away. There was no sign of cheese anywhere.
Which begged the question—why not? If a full-bodied manchego can improve the flavor of legendarily mediocre wines, then what effect might it have on truly enjoyable ones? According to scientists at Dijon’s Center for Taste and Feeding Behavior, pairing cheese and wine can reduce the perception “of astringency and sourness” and increase “duration of red fruit aroma.” In other words, cheese makes wine taste better—even in France.
In light of these revelations, perhaps “they gave it to me with cheese” should be uttered with gratitude instead of regret. The problem, predictably, lies with intent. Consider, for example, the practice of catching lake-dwelling rainbow trout with a little ball of Velveeta molded around a treble hook. If your intent is to reduce the population of hatchery-raised fish, then there’s no doubt that this method can be both captivating and efficient.
Because each trout that you fool is destined for the frying pan, however, “repeat business” becomes a contradiction in terms. Like a naive Spanish tavernkeeper returning to his home province with a cask of vinegary tinto, there is no going back.
If, on the other hand, your intent is to maintain—a healthy stock of wild fish, an honest relationship with customers, or a modicum of self-respect—then you might wish to modify your approach. Note that, in this analogy, the seeming confluence of cheese and pasteurized prepared cheese product is merely a red herring. On a practical level, the real convergence is between Velveeta and an artificial fly. In both cases, the angler is offering something that—to a trout—only resembles actual food.
Catch-and-release fly fishing, as a pastime, might be unique in its determination to marry deceit with generosity. We entertain ourselves with attempts to dupe our prey and then, once successful, accord each fish a respect that borders on reverence. For some reason, it just feels more fun that way.
Any urge to extend this model to other situations, however, seems destined to failure. Truth be told, it’s not easy to be generous. Neither to friends nor strangers nor to yourself, not even in the simplest of transactions. For confirmation, just try to remember the last time you tipped the cashier at your local minimart.
Fact is, others will cheat us. Life, in its unfathomable indifference, also and forever cheats us. Our duty, in turn, is to do our damnedest to cheat death. Which means not cheating ourselves.
Once again, I have realized too late that reluctance is a weakness. Reticence is a weakness. Reserve a weakness too. Yes—I caught more than enough trout on this trip. But, fearing the possible effects on my linen shirt, I did not try the porrón.
Next time, if there be one, give me all of it. Without filters or preservatives. The native browns as well as the transplanted rainbows. The wine, the hills, the sunshine. And, of course, the cheese.
Peter W. Fong has been the head guide at Mongolia River Outfitters since 2006. His stories and photographs have appeared in Destinations, The Flyfish Journal, Gray’s Sporting Journal, The New York Times, Strung, and many other publications. His forthcoming book Rowing to Baikal (Latah Books) is the story of a 1,000-mile expedition from the headwaters of Mongolia’s Selenge River to Russia’s Lake Baikal. He arranged his week with María José and the other guides at Salvelinus.com through Orvis Travel.