Spanish Cheeses – La Mancha, Spain
Spanish cheeses varieties are not as large as those available in France, and neither are they as well known. However one that I know well, as a taste sensation, is Manchego, which also happens to be Spain’s most famous cheese. Manchega features on our regular Friday night cheese platter, however, until recently, I wasn’t aware that a true Manchego cheese is made only from whole milk of the Manchega sheep. When we travelled through La Mancha, we of course heard a lot about the legend of Don Quixote, however nothing was mentioned at all about the Manchego cheese. It would have been great to have tasted some over there. Whilst we only have one variety available at our specialty cheese shop, the shop assistant tells me that back home there are so many different brand names and prices.
The Manchega sheep is raised in the “La Mancha” region and grazes on shrubs and grasses of the Dahesa. They produce a thick, aromatic milk which gives Manchego its unique and distinctive character. “La Mancha” region is a vast high plateau of more than 600 meters above sea level. It adjoins the provinces of Toledo, Cuenca, Ciudad Real and Albacete, all in the Castile-La Mancha Region southeast of Madrid. Originally the rinds of the Manchego bore the impressions of the plaited esparto grass baskets into which the shepherd’s hand pressed the curds and of the flowers that were placed on top. Nowadays the same patterns are formed by the moulds in which the cheeses are pressed.
Manchego is an aged cheese, from semi-cured to cured, and unpasteurised or pasteurised milk. The base milk has to have a minimum of 6% fat. The milk coagulates at 28ºC to 32ºC after adding animal curd. The ageing process must be done in fresh areas, with a humidity level of 75 – 85%, for at least 60 days. Air-drying in caves is a ageing process. The rind is closed, clean well engraved, of a yellow to a brownish beige colour. The interior is firm and compact, closed, with a few small air pockets unevenly spread. The color is ivory to pale yellow. The taste is very characteristic, well developed, but not too strong, buttery and slightly piquant, with an sheep milk aftertaste. Shaped cylindrically and with flat top and bottom surfaces, they are typically engraved with the “flower” left by the wooden presses. The sides also display a zigzag pattern which is produced by the mat-weed (esparto) of the moulds. Today, even with industrial production of the cheeses, they have the same engraving, predesigned in the new industrial moulds.