Leggo My Manchego
Spain has always been a revelation to me. From my earliest days behind the cheese counter over a decade ago when I knew almost nothing about cheese, I instinctively “knew” great cheese came from France, Italy and even England…but Spain? For some reason, Spain was not even on my radar.
Imagine my surprise in those formative weeks as I tasted my way through some of the tastiest morsels in the 500-plus-cheese collection and found gem after gem from Spain. Times have changed, of course, and anyone who has even the barest inkling about cheese has heard of Manchego and its wonders. But there are more than a few lesser-known specimens not to be missed.
Much of the landscape of Spain is rocky and windswept with extreme temperature fluctuations—cold winters and intense, hot summers. A local saying in Madrid—located in the center of the country—is that the weather is “nine months of winter and three months of hell,” as scorching summer temperatures descend.
Few animals can survive and thrive on the rugged plains of Central Spain, but the sheep that call the interior of the country home are hardy creatures. Their milk is common throughout Spain’s most famous queso.
While Spain is most noted historically for its sheep’s milk cheeses, there are many delicious and innovative blended milk cheeses, which change slightly with the seasons as the milk supply shifts. These cheeses incorporate cow’s milk from the cooler, moist north Atlantic coast and the goat’s milk that comes from the southern, more Mediterranean regions.
Spanish cheeses have many similarities in style with subtle variations in texture and flavor. They are uncommonly delectable and satisfying across the board. Peasant food at its finest.
Many Spanish cheeses have a similar cylindrical shape and common rind style, a unique herringbone pattern that spans a range of cheeses. Historically, cheeses were pressed into special forms, baskets woven from local grasses. Newly formed cheeses would carry the texture and pattern on their rind. Manchego and Zamorano are two examples.
Manchego is perhaps Spain’s most famous cheese. It is made exclusively from the milk of Manchega sheep in La Mancha, a region named from the Arabic “al-mansha,” meaning “land without water.” Most Manchego is made with pasteurized milk and comes in a variety of ages, from young (two to three months) to extra aged (one year or more).
Younger cheeses are tender and moist with a delicate, almost sweet flavor. As the cheeses age, they become firmer and drier, and their flavor is nuttier and more savory with a nice, balanced acidity and subtle saltiness. I suggest trying a variety of ages to find your preference.
Zamorano is a close cousin of Manchego and is made from the raw milk of the Churra sheep. The two cheeses look almost identical, but the Zamorano has a bit more in the way of robust flavor and aroma due to the use of high butterfat raw milk. The aroma is decidedly sheepy, in a good way, with a pleasant nuttiness. The flavor is a good balance between salt and savory, with an acidic tang. It’s an all-around satisfying cheese.
For those who appreciate smoked cheese, give Idiazábal (id-ee-ah-ZAH-bal) a try. Traditionally made by shepherds grazing flocks of sheep in high mountain pastures during the spring and summer, these cheeses were stored in the shepherd’s shelter and there received a dose of natural smoke flavors from the cooking fires. Today, most Idiazábal is produced in factories or co-ops.
The cheese is rich with butterfat from the sheep’s milk and the smoky edge is quite addictive, but rarely overpowers the luscious quality of the milk. For the best flavor, look for Idiazábal aged about four to six months.
While sheep cheeses have been front and center for millennia, goats have recently come to the forefront in several of Spain’s exciting, more contemporary cheeses. What these cheeses lack in historical roots, they more than make up for in taste.
One of my absolute favorite cheeses is the phenomenal Garrotxa (gar-ROAT-cha). Upon first tasting the cheese several years ago, I assumed that it had been around for ages and that it had it only recently been “discovered” by some savvy exporter. I was partially right.
As in America, a cheesemaking renaissance is afoot in Spain. This local Catalonian cheese was rescued from the edge of extinction in the late 1980s by a newly formed co-op of cheesemakers who were previously urban dwellers longing for connection to a more rural lifestyle.
The cheese is made in small, naturally rinded wheels covered in blue-gray mold. The interior is ivory colored with a semi-firm consistency and a delicious, slightly herbal flavor with a hint of hazelnuts on the finish.
A small section of the country, along the northern Atlantic coast, is damp and cool enough for cows and is now home to a pungent blue cheese known as Cabrales (keh-BRAH-les) or Valdeon (val-day-OHN). Unpasteruized cow’s milk is combined with goat and sheep milk in varying seasonal proportions to produce Spain’s contribution to the realm of blue cheese.
Cabrales is perhaps the most assertive blue cheese in the world, depending on the particular specimen. It is limestone cave-aged until blue mold permeates the wheel. Valdeon, Cabrales’ slightly tamer cousin, is wrapped in Sycamore leaves and has a bit less intensity of flavor but is undoubtedly blue. Either cheese makes a wonderful addition to the blue-lover’s cheeseboard.
Spanish cheeses are an ideal match for savory Mediterranean fare like olives, salami and charcuterie. In thinking about how to serve the cheeses, think tapas, the famous small plates served at bars around the country. Cheeses are often served cut in finger-friendly triangles along with sweet and spicy fruit pastes or savory items. Because they have wide appeal, the Spanish cheeses are great for gatherings of people with diverse food preferences. There will definitely be something for everyone.
Traditionally, Spanish cheeses are served with Sherry but are also quite versatile with wines. For great pairings, look to the warm-weather reds like Tempranillo and Rioja with heavy, fruit notes and even a hint of sweetness. A spicy white like Gewürztraminer can be a good bet as well, especially with the goat cheeses.
Christine Hyatt is a Cheese Educator and food writer. She currently serves as the Vice President of the American Cheese Society and welcomes cheesy questions at email@example.com .