It was the summer of 2012 and the world had its eyes on London: the Olympic Games were being held and the Spanish Maider Unda had just won bronze in wrestling in the 72 kg category. Unda was in his prime, he had just won medals in international championships and four years earlier he had put our hearts in his fist at the Beijing Olympics, from where he returned with a diploma for fifth place.
What not many people knew is that this athlete who had just made history in London also made Idiazábal cheeses in Olaeta (Álava). Cheese maker, cattle farmer, guide and salesperson: since 2003 Maider occupies all the roles of Atxeta Cheese, the family farm that he runs with his sister. A job that he combined with elite sport until 2016, the year in which he decided to hang up the tights and dedicate himself exclusively to his cheese factory. Even so, her link with the fight has not been broken, she continues to train the new generations who are beginning to feel interest in the fight and is part of the board of directors of the Spanish Federation, but her work, as she says, is her sheep and their cheese factory.
A shepherdess in tights
The story of Maider Unda is not that of someone who leaves everything to go to the countryside to lead a bucolic life among valleys and sheep. Maider did not make any life changes by leaving elite sport, on the contrary, he was returning to what he had done all his life. He already knew first-hand how tough the road he was taking is. “People come to visit town and it is believed that this is chupifiesta, But when you have to take the brush cutter, the hoe and you have to make firewood, tararí tararí. We like how beautiful it is because we have seen that now, with the pandemic, in the town we have been much more comfortable, but when you have to bend the kidney … it is not beautiful, no. We idealize it so much that reality has nothing to do with it, ”says Maider.
Your reality has nothing to do with chupifiestas. Maider is a peculiar athlete, in an even more peculiar sport for women. He started wrestling as an extracurricular activity in Olaeta, and later, when he had a driver’s license, he alternated his studies and work in his parents’ livestock with training in Vitoria. She was trained by Luis Crespo, a part-time electrician. It did not seem that the sport was going to change the life of either of them, until women’s wrestling entered the Olympic program in 2004. “There everyone got nervous, and people who had stopped fighting took it up again” .
Maider decided to gamble everything on that card and went to Madrid. “I left everything to just train and I took a bigger cake… I came back and said: ‘First I’m going to have a job that I’m going to dedicate myself to, and fighting is going to be something that I am going to have fun with, that be passionate, but do it for fun. ‘ I came to hate sports. I broke down, I felt neglected. It was the worst ”.
At first, his father led the herd and his mother tended the cows. When they retired, Maider and her sister took over. They were left with 3,000 sheep of the lacha breed, of which they make the cheese of the Idiazábal Denomination of Origin. From that moment, the results also began to appear in sport: Maider set up a gym in his house to train when he was not with the cattle.
“People will tell you that it is easier to live from sports, but I am in favor of living from the countryside, it is much more grateful. In sport there are very few people who reach the top. There are many frustrations, false expectations, and here in the field it is very clear what there is ”. It is curious to me that someone who has been at the top of her category – and no one has yet managed to get where she did in wrestling – could not consider living only from sports. “And I was lucky, I was able to combine both thanks to my family, who helped me and stayed here when I had to go racing. If not, impossible ”.
If you listen, you understand
Neither sport nor working with animals understand holidays. Both require a lot of sacrifice. “In sport, at least, you have to know how to stop, if you don’t break down, but the animals don’t, they have to eat and be cared for every day. Also, with livestock you are working with animals, not with machines. Sheep express themselves and if you open their ears you understand them. Sometimes we go so fast that we think ‘this sheep there’. But if he is telling you that he does not want to enter, it will be that he does not want to enter for something ”.
When he shows me his cousins, his sister is working in the barn. Maider is the one who makes the visits to their cheese factory and who explains the work they do at Atxeta. I find it curious that he talks about the personality that this breed of sheep has, about its manias. “The first year they are much more noble, then they become more surly. As adults they do not allow themselves to be approached, they always jump. One is scared and they are capable of running all ”.
As we speak, a sheep comes up to us and starts fiddling with a water dispenser. He touches the pushbutton, a jet of water comes out, he moves away. Returns. Touch. Water comes out. It moves away. The animal repeats this operation several times while the others are eating without raising its head. “Sometimes they simply press to play or attract attention, but hierarchies are very marked in the drinking fountain. ‘I make myself hollow, I’m here and you don’t come to drink water until I say’. Then there are others who don’t learn to drink from there and my sister puts a bucket of water on them. I tell him ‘if they didn’t have it, you would see how they would learn ”. I see in this role the demanding athlete and coach who has not been given anything.
Sheep are producers and they are more spoiled. They also have horses, but they stay in the mountains all year round so they can eat the grass that the sheep do not graze. “We manage the land because we try to make the sheep graze as much as possible. We compost the manure on waning moons and spread it on the fields where the sheep graze. I mow and clear the land where they graze so that good grass grows ”.
A peculiar breed
The menhaden is a seasonal breeding breed. Stop at the end of January, raise the lamb, have a few months of lactation until August and then have a drying period, which is when they are taken out to the mountains. “Before sending them out, we do a few weeks of covering. Every so often we bring the adult sheep to count and check for lameness. Tonight there has been something strange, because they have mixed with sheep from another shepherd, possibly there has been a dog ”.
When the ewes have given birth, the one they leave to re-breed stays with the mother for up to 45 days. If it is male or not it is for rearing, as soon as it reaches 10 or 15 kilos it goes to the slaughterhouse and the mother goes to milking. “Until the lamb is separated from its mother, we do not milk that sheep.” Sheep have a productive life of approximately eight years if they are calved each year. “If the sheep’s udder is damaged or it has not given birth in three years, we send it to the slaughterhouse. In August I do the computation. If we remove 40 sheep, 40 lambs, I always have the same number of sheep ”.
Silence, it is milked
Entering the milking parlor, Maider returns to talking about the character of the sheep. “They are very sensitive to changes. When you go to milk them you have to be at what you are, five minutes maximum per sheep, it is not good that they are more. They enter from 16 to 16, they drop food, and while they eat they milk themselves. Normally we are two people here, as the sheep enter and see someone different, they get very tense ”.
The amount of milk each sheep gives varies greatly. Some give two liters in each shot and others do not reach half a liter. Monthly, from March to July, the milk is monitored. “We put a bottle and each sheep is measured how much milk it has and that is how we know the genetic value and make the selection for rearing.” Idiazábal is made with raw milk that has to be analyzed several times during the month. “There is a calendar and if you bring the milk on Monday, on Thursday you will have the result. As the Idiazábal has a minimum maturation of two months, long before the cheese reaches the market you already have an analysis. As it is raw milk, you have to control it a lot ”, says Maider.
The cheeses: semi, cured, smoked and crushed old cheese cream
Although the DO Idiazábal does not require that the rennet be natural, in Atxeta they use this rennet to give the essence to the cheese, this, according to Maider, gives the cheese a different personal touch that differentiates it from others. The Idiazábal are between one and three kilos in weight and a minimum maturity of two months. In Atxeta they also make smoked cheese with beech wood, which they smoke when the cheese has already matured for 3 or 4 months. “I do it like this so that it is more done and does not get too smoked, because personally I do not like strong smoked”.
They make cheese every two days and produce an average of 4,000 kilos of cheese per year that they sell directly. “We distribute in three stores in the area, I sell in the cheese factory itself and I do home delivery. Before we went to many fairs, but now this has been cut with the Covid ”. Although it is always the same production process, he tells me that spring marks a lot what the cheese will be like that year. “For example, this year it was creamier,” he tells me.
When we finish the conversation, he offers me to try his cheeses. He recommends tempering them beforehand and taking them with young wines or not even wine, because they do not need to clean the mouth much. And finally he gives me some advice: “Try the grated semi-cured in a mashed potatoes, without butter or anything, you’ll see how good it is.” Gold medal for Maider’s cheeses.
Wrestling and field, two very masculinized worlds
Sports and fields are two worlds where the female presence has always been very invisible. Two worlds in which Maider has amply shown that he knows how to do things. On the other hand, neither in one nor in the other has he got rid of machismo. “I have a brother who does not work with me and there are times when I feel obliged to go with him to a work meeting because it is like they respect you more if you go with a man. If you go alone, they want to eat you. And there are people who see me and say ‘she is a fighter, she gives me a cake and throws me’, because there are still those who think they can talk to me as they want because they are a woman.
Even so, he ensures that of the two worlds he keeps the good of each one to apply it to the other. “There is nothing like being disciplined to take steps forward and I have seen this in sports and on the field. You also have to be patient and be clear that there are days that are bad and others are worse than bad, but then there is always something that makes you see things positively. And when nothing comes out of what you had programmed, you have to to reset and move on to something else quickly ”.