Manchego cheese. Juan Manuel Sanz / © ICEX
These are probably the most representative of Spanish cheeses. Sheep have always played an important role in Spain. For more than seven centuries, Spain exported wool all over Europe through its powerful sheep-raising organization - La Mesta - which dominated agriculture until well into the 19th century. The large flocks covered huge distances in search of fertile pastures during the cold winter months, with the result that sheep now feature in almost all parts of Spain, especially the central plateau. This is their real ecosystem, with very cold winters and hot summers. With the decline of the wool trade, sheep began to be used more for their milk and, to a lesser extent, their meat.
Today, Spain produces large amounts of ewes' milk resulting in a large range of high-quality cheeses. They tend to all have the same shape and the standard marking on the rind of the imprint of the esparto grass straps traditionally used to squeeze out the whey. But there are some important differences, and the breeds differ - Merino, Latxa, Churro, Manchego - each of them adapted to a different territory and very much a part of the local grazing traditions. In addition to the well-known Manchego cheese, some outstanding ewes' milk cheeses come from Extremadura - Torta de la Serena and Torta del Casar - both of which use thistle flowers as plant rennet.