- What comes to mind when you think of Spanish cheese?
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While we may not consider the Spanish a great cheesemaking nation compared to, say, the French, they are exporting many regional cheeses which deserve equal attention. It is not a lack of cheesemaking history which means Spanish cheeses are less well known than those of other European nations. Rupert Linton, head of cheese at Spanish food importer Brindisa, argues that the Spanish simply wanted to keep all the cheese for themselves, “Regional Spanish cheesemakers had large local markets for their cheeses for much of the 20th century and were not so interested in developing their export markets,” he explains. “When Spain joined the EU, food safety standards between the various European countries were harmonised which made export much easier, but by then French and Italian cheeses were well established in people’s awareness.”
Generally speaking, cow’s milk cheeses are produced in the North of Spain along the Cantabrian coast and east into the Pyrenees where hardy cattle graze in the shadows of looming snowy peaks. Sheeps’ milk cheeses are produced inland in Cantabria and the Basque Country where shaggy sheep with long wooly coats live in high pastures, and further down into Castilla-León, Castilla La Mancha, Aragón and Extremadura. Goat’s milk cheeses are generally produced along the Mediterranean coast where they graze the rugged cliff tops which are inaccessible to other hooved animals.
“A preference for pasturing their flocks on complex local pastures allow cheesemakers to produce cheeses that each have a unique sense of terroir,” explains Linton. “Artisan cheesemakers are proud to be preserving the rare breeds best suited to the mountain and high plain environments of inland Spain and although these breeds produce less milk, flavours are more concentrated.”
There are now more than 100 types of Spanish cheese and more than 25 with PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) status. Here are the new essentials:
It is practically a crime to mention Spanish cheese without bringing in its heavyweight superstar: Manchego. A PDO sheeps’ milk cheese from the plateaus of La Mancha, it is prized for its buttery texture and well matured, creamy flavour with a slightly sharp, salty finish. Produced in barrel shaped moulds, the cheese is aged between 60 days and two years, with flavours ranging from grassy through nutty, caramel notes to a more developed leathery sweetness in the fully mature cheese. It is nearly always served with membrillo: a sweet, fragrant paste of quince.
Originating from Galicia in the northwest of Spain, this PDO cow’s milk cheese is known for its distinctive shape: the Spanish word tetilla translates as ‘nipple’. The milk of Friesian, Brown Swiss and Galician Blonde cows is combined to make a young cheese (tetilla is aged for just seven days) which boasts a buttery smoothness and faint walnut-y flavour. The mildness of the cheese makes it perfect for pairing with crisp Galician wines such as Albariño.
This creamy, soft goats’ cheese is produced exclusively by one small, family-run dairy in the rolling hills of Avila, northwest of Madrid. A log-shaped cheese with a blue-grey ash rind which is developed using penicilium roqueforti, the same mould used to make Roquefort. It has a chalky texture and a gentle, sharp lemony flavour when young, growing in pungency and developing a distinct farmyard note as it matures. There is no doubt this cheese comes from the milk of a goat!
A traditional Catalan goats’ milk cheese, Garrotxa was almost an extinct cheese until it was revived in the early ‘80s. Made from the milk of Murciana goats, this semi-soft, wheel shaped cheese is cave aged in the Pyrenees. It has a striking, white interior with a creamy yet crumbly texture which verges on flaky. The flavour is delicate and milky with a slight nutty and herbal edge, making it quite distinct from other goats’ cheeses.
TORTA DEL CASAR
This PDO sheep’s milk cheese from Extremadura is named after its city of origin: Casar de Cáceres. It is a pungent cheese produced using a coagulant present in cardoons, or thistles, which brings a slightly bitter note – essential for balancing the rich intensity of this complex, slightly funky cheese. It is served by slicing the top off and scooping out the spreadable cheese inside – perfect served with plenty of sturdy bread or crackers.
QUESO DE CABRALES
Some of Spain’s most impressive blues come from the Picos de Europas mountain range in the North where steep, jagged limestone peaks combine with cool, deep caves and magical alpine forests. The PDO protected Cabrales is made with unpasteurised sheep and goat milk (the former adds smoothness and the latter a pungent acidity) which is left to coagulate slowly. Aged for two to five months, the final cheese is very pungent, with bold, lactic aromas and a salty, sharp flavour.
La Peral is a more modern style of cow’s milk (and sheep’s whey) cheese, made in Concejo de Illas in central Asturias. Aged between two and four months in limestone caves it is semi-soft, blue veined and distinguishable by its natural, pale yellow rind. It’s buttery and mushroomy with some caramel and spice notes as it ages.