Around Spain in 8 Cheeses
Dorrea Idiazabal PDO cheese factory. Ignacio Muñoz-Seca/©ICEX
Author: Saúl Aparicio/©ICEX
Bathed by three different seas, the second most mountainous country in Europe, yet also the site of some of its vastest plains and one of its longest coastlines, Spain is nothing if not a country of contrasts and diversity. This shows in many aspects of Spanish life, and one of the most important is its food and wine. Saúl Aparicio finds out, cheese is a striking example.
Spain is a country of rutas or routes. The whole of its geography is crisscrossed by these routes, some of them religious - such as the Camino de Santiago (St. James Way) which pilgrims traveled to Apostle James' final resting place in Santiago de Compostela (Galicia)-, some of them literary- such as the Quixote route, which plots the fictional knight's travels round La Mancha-, or the true gourmand's favorite: food and wine routes. It is often surprising how illuminating a country's foods can be to understanding it. The particular case of Spain's cheeses is an interesting example: even in a small selection, no more than eight, the tremendous diversity of climates, livestock, traditions and gastronomic pleasures in Spain shows through.
Central Spain-The Castiles and Extremadura
Strange as it may seem, the whole history of central Spain cannot be fully understood without talking about sheep and goats. From times immemorial the people of the plains of central Spain - a dry, arid region where temperatures went from extreme cold in the winter to extreme heat in the summer - subsisted thanks to shepherding. Thousands of nomadic shepherds would migrate yearly from west to east or south to north, crossing hundreds of miles to have their animals graze the green grass of the mountains in the summer, then fleeing to the warmer plains before the first snows came.
Torta del Casar
This cheese from Extremadura is a dream come true to people that enjoy their cheese as a dip. The inside of the cheese is creamy and runny, so the most common way to serve it is by simply slicing the top off and spooning it out or dipping directly from the cheese rind 'bowl' that remains.
Made from the raw milk of Merino and Entrefina sheep, the native breeds of sheep whose wool was long Europe's most prized for its quality and length, the cheese is also unique in that the rennet employed to produce the cheese is not of animal origin, but produced from a plant. The flowers of wild thistles are pressed for a juice, which is added to the raw milk to begin the curdling.
The resulting curd is broken into small pieces and manually pressed into cylinder-shaped molds, and matured for at least 60 days, turning it over every day. Aromatically, it is quite pungent, and it has a strong, mature, rich and intense taste, with a touch of bitterness from the thistle rennet.
Produced in the region of Castile-La Mancha, between Madrid and Andalusia, Manchego cheese is made only from the whole milk (raw or pasteurized) of a native breed of sheep, the Manchega. The cheese is cylinder shaped, around 10 in in diameter and 5 in thick, and weighs in at about 9 lbs. The rind's color varies from light brown to dark gray, and the cut reveals an even, white or light yellow paste.
Although always creamy, moderately salty, slightly piquant and recognizably made from sheep's milk, the taste depends on the time it has been matured in caves. Fresco (fresh - only two months mature) is mild, subtle, and fresh. Viejo (old -matured for a full year) is strong, fullbodied and distinctly tangy. Lying in between is Curado (meaning, simply, matured), which is 3 to 6 months old and tends to be the most widely available option.
Made in the mountainous region of northern León, in Castile-León, Valdeón cheese is made from goat's milk, cow's milk, or a mixture of both. Shaped as an uneven cylinder and weighing roughly 6 lbs, the outside of the cheese is dark grey, with some red and blue spots. It is normally wrapped up in leaves, which keep it fresh.
Its soft paste is pale yellow in color, streaked with greenish-blue veins. Smooth in taste for a blue cheese, but still strong, its defining features are a fatty, unctuous texture and a slightly spicy finish. The strength of the taste depends on the time it is matured, ranging from semicurado (mildest) to curado (strongest).
Montenebro cheese is sometimes also labeled as Queso del Tiétar, after the name of the valley in the region of Ávila (Castile-León) where it is made. This cheese is made exclusively from the milk of two autochthonous breeds of goats, the Retinta and Verata, pasteurized in the vast majority of cases. Its shape is that of a slightly flattened tube, weighing roughly 3 lbs. The blueishgreen color and softness of the rind is the result of the action of penicilium molds, which occurs during the time the cheese is matured. The interior is even, compact and white, and bears sharp, spicy and nutty aromas, especially hazelnut. Melt-in the-mouth creamy, fatty and rich, its taste is sharp and decidedly racy.
The Northern Coast
The northern coast of Spain is often referred to as 'green Spain', since its humid Atlantic weather is the exact opposite of the usual image some have of a dry, hot, sunny Spain. With a landscape covered in rolling hills and green pastures, the cattle of the area includes cows aside from sheep, producing a truly mind-boggling amount of different cheeses.
Idiazabal cheese is one of the many gastronomic gems of the Basque Country. The cheese is made from the raw milk of two native breeds of sheep, the Latxa and the Carranzana, which is curdled with lamb rennet and then matured for a minimum of two months and a maximum of six. Some of the cheeses are then smoked over birch, white hawthorn or beech fires.
Idiazabal cheese is cylindrical in shape, roughly 4 in height and between 4 and 12 in diameter. The surface of the cheese is extremely smooth, and its color can range between a pale grey to dark brown, depending on how intensely it has been smoked. The interior is ivory white in color, and small, uneven holes (rarely larger than a grain of rice) are present all over its surface. Its taste is full of balance: rich, but not enough that you'll have your fill with just one piece; slightly salty without having you reach for a glass of water; and with hints of smokiness that don't mask the full sheep milk taste or the subtle piquant finish.
Tetilla cheese, we could say, is the most sensual of Spanish cheeses. This isn't due to it being creamy, soft and smooth, but to the name it bears. Tetilla literally means small breast, which is the shape in which it is presented.
Never much heavier than 2 lbs, it has a yellow rind that is soft, smooth and flexible. The paste is off-white, soft, and bears some evenly spread small holes. The cheese is made from the pasteurized milk of cows fed on the rich, green, pastures of Galicia, and it shows when you taste it. A touch salty, buttery and smooth, few cheeses melt as deliciously as Tetilla. All over Spain, in fact, it is enjoyed as the melted topping on a slice of rustic bread covered with the typical ham of the region, lacón.
Mediterranean is a word often used to define the diet and gastronomy of Spain. And, indeed, Mediterranean products, conditions and habits permeate the whole of the country. Many of Spain's most famous dishes, such as paella originate in the region. So, for the last straight of our cheese 'tournée', we'll begin on the Mediterranean coast of the mainland´s and jump over to the Balearic Islands.
Murcia al vino
Murcia al vino cheese is amongst the most unique cheeses in the world. Not only is it one of the few cheeses infused with red wine, but it is also responsible for the preservation of an autochthonous Spanish species.
For many centuries, goats of the Murciana breed were the main source of livelihood for the people of the most rocky, dry, areas of Murcia. The life of the goatherd is a hard one, though, and with the progress of the tourism industry in the Spanish coast, the number of goatherds and Murciana goats steadily dwindled. The newfound popularity of this cheese in the past two decades, however, has had a real impact in this aspect, making the future of the breed safe. Centuries of adaptation mean that despite grazing on arid lands, the Murciana goat produces rich and plentiful milk, delicately infused with the aromas of the wild herbs that it grazes on the sunswept hills of the region.
But perhaps this cheese´s most striking difference is the use of wine in the cheesemaking process. During the ripening stage of the cheese (which takes a minimum of 45 days), it is dipped twice in the full-bodied, intense red wine of the region. This infuses the cheese with the aromas of wine, and gives the rind its characteristic reddish-purple color and floral aromas.
Queso de Mahón-Menorca
Mahón cheese is named after the capital of the Balearic Island of Menorca, which has one of the longest documented traditions of cheesemaking in all of Spain. The milk used to make the cheese comes from two breeds of cow, the Frisona (or Holstein) and the native Menorquina, the latter of which is an important cog in the rich ecosystem of the island.
Its shape is square, with rounded off edges, and has a swirly shape imprinted on the top. This is due to the way in which excess liquid is drained off when it is made - the cheese is wrapped into a cotton cloth, called a fogasser, the four corners of which are tied into a knot that leaves the markings.
The color of both the rind and the paste varies depending on the time it has been aged. Tierno (tender) is the least cured of all. Ivory white in color, it has a thin rind and is a lightly salty fresh cheese, ideal to have with marmalades, in salads or with membrillo (quince paste). Semicurado, or shortly matured, has a thicker, orange rind, and the inside is also a darker shade of white, bordering on yellow.
It has a firm paste, though easily cut, which is dotted with small holes. It has complex tastes and aromas, amongst which creamy butter and toasted nuts dominate. Curado, finally, is the most mature of all. The rind is brown and the inside cream-colored. Somewhat harder than the previous two, it is flaky rather than creamy. It is also the most intense in taste, since the nutty aromas of its 'younger brothers' are complemented by oaky 'notes' and a moderately hot finish.
Saúl Aparicio is a Madrid-based freelance writer and translator.