Spanish Cheese
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Society & Culture
Spanish Cheese
By Ralph Delis
Mar 9, 2005, 06:08

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About Cabrales, Idiazabal, Manchego and more
Valdehierro - Spanish Cheeses
Spain is nowadays an important reference in gastronomy for its cheeses. That has been different in the past: in the beginning of the 20th century, Spain hardly had any tradition, although a great variety of locally made cheese did exist. Together with the upcoming interest in Spanish wines, culinary restaurants and ham, Spanish cheese is getting more appreciated in foreign countries. Where in the past the demand was concentrated on Manchego cheese, nowadays foreigners ask for Cabrales, Idiazábal, Tetilla or more. What are their differences between these cheeses and where do they come from?

So many regions, so many cheeses. I believe every autonomous region in Spain nowadays is known for at least one cheese, if not more. The big difference between Spanish cheeses is determined by its climate. In northern-Spain, the Atlantic breeze brings humidity and moderate temperatures. The predominant pictures here are cows grazing on green meadows, producing a creamy cheese such as the Galician Tetilla. Sheep cheese is in minority, except for the Basque country and Navarra. In central and Mediterranean Spain sheep and goat dominate, while the Balearic islands are true reflection of the mainland, with the same differences between north and south. The Canary Islands are a goats paradise – it’s said that Fuerteventura has more goats than inhabitants!

Making cheese is simple process; however making quality cheese is complex and an art. You may have guessed that one of the first requirements for an excellent cheese is high quality milk. We have already seen that the one of the main differences in taste between cheeses is caused by its origin. Then, in the production process, some important decisions play an important role in the development of the cheese. For example, whether raw, pasteurized or sterilized milk is used for its production. Then, the use of rennet, heating, pressing, salting and curing of the cheese. And finally, a difference in taste can by obtained by adding herbs or spices, by curing in olive oil, by smoking the cheese or by inoculating moulds.

This article would get to long if we’d talk about all Spanish cheeses, so let’s take a look at some cheeses with a Denominación de Origen that are “coming up” fast in the charts:

Because if its name, many people think this must be goat cheese. Not true! Although goat milk is sometimes used as a component, it’s a truly cow’s milk cheese. Cabrales is situated in the heart of the Picos de Europa (Asturias), famous for its impressive landscapes with high peaks and gorges, beautiful and intimate. This is a mould cheese made from raw milk (only heated to 22-25ºC) and ripened in 2 to 5 months in humid caves. The result is a cheese with a strong smell and a pronounced, spicy flavour. A typical cheese that accompanies well with a strong red or a sweet desert wine.

Idiazábal is a small village in the heart of the gastronomic Basque Country. Until 1987, when the Denominación de Origin became official, cheeses from the Basque country were renamed after its origin, such as Aralar, Urbia, Monte San Donato, etcetera. Nowadays, all these cheese are unified under the name of Idiazabal and also include cheeses from Navarra. Elaborated with raw sheep milk, Idiazábal is a robust and sharp cheese, and usually ripened for a long period (at least 60 days). Its paste is delightful and “chewy”. For many Spaniards, Idiazabal is a synonym for smoked cheese, but that’s not necessarily true. Both smoked and unsmoked versions are available on demand.

The region of manchego cheese
The king of Spanish cheeses and the first one mentioned by many foreigners. Its ‘denominacion” includes the provinces of Toledo, Cuenca, Ciudad Real and Albacete. Watch out: the characteristic cylinder shape and the lineal imprint is copied by many other cheeses that have nothing to do with Manchego. The best recommendation is to always study the label carefully. As a minimum, it should say “queso puro de oveja” (the true Manchego cheese is elaborated with sheep milk). A stamp of the regulating council “consejo regular” should also figure on the label. Raw milk is used in the traditional production process, whilst industry-made Manchego is elaborated with pasteurized milk. This leads to a significant difference in taste: raw milk cheese has a typical and spicy taste, highly appreciated by the experts. The ripening process should take at least 60 days – and the label should also refer to this: tierno (soft, young), semi-curado (half-mature), curado (matured) or añejo (very well matured). An añejo cheese should have ripened for more then 16 months.
A last recommendation: if you study the label of a Manchego cheese, sometimes the month of elaboration is mentioned, however this is no obligation. The best quality milk is obtained between February and May, although it doesn’t mean you will receive inferior quality in the other months.

Zamora is a beautiful antique city along de Duero river in the community of Castilla and Leon and very near Toro, an upcoming wine-region with red wines that seem to be made to accompany these cheeses. Zamorano cheeses are very similar in form to the Manchego cheese and made from best quality sheep milk. The difference in taste with Manchego cheese is not always easy to recognize. In general speaking, Zamorano is a less pronounced and not so creamy as a Manchego. Some would say it’s a more sophisticated cheese; because it’s not as salty and spicy as Manchego can be.

Galician tetilla cheese
The Galician Tetilla should be mentioned here, as this is a cheese that calls for the attention of many foreigners. It’s a cheese that has a particularly moulding, obtaining the form of a women’s breast. Very popular among children for its soft and creamy consistence and light-salted taste. This cheese is traditionally made in the provinces of Pontevedra, La Coruña and Lugo. Raw or pasteurized cow milk is used for its elaboration, again depending whether farmhouse or industry-made. You shouldn’t accompany this cheese with strong wines or spicy food, as its taste is very fine and its nuance not pronounced.

If you tasted above mentioned cheeses and are looking for more adventure, try some Andalusian cheeses: Queso de Antequera and Queso de Aracena is two very reasonable goat cheeses, although they don’t have a Denominación. The village with the highest average rainfall in Andalucia, Grazalema, does have the Denominación and deserves it for cheeses that admit both sheep and goat milk. On a holiday, you may also let yourself surprise by some cheeses from the islands: Maó from Menorca is a very tasteful cheese elaborated with cow-milk (although a 5% sheep milk is permitted). Less famous, but also nice is the “Queso Majorero” from Fuerteventure, a 100% goat milk cheese, just like the lightly smoked cheese from the island La Palma “Queso Palmero”. As you see, even the smallest places in Spain make a great cheese: another reason to keep coming back in this yet undiscovered cheese paradise.

Pictures on this page were offered by Quesos Cristo del Prado in Madridejos (Toledo) and the Regulating Council of Tetilla Cheese.

Ralph Delis works for Casitas Select, specialising in holiday villas, cottages and farmhouses with private pool
throughout Andalucia.

© Copyright 2005 by & Ralph Delis

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