Manchego cheese is the most important and well-known sheep’s milk cheese in Spain. The shape of this cheese is very characteristic and defined, due to the traditional use of esparto grass molds which imprints a zigzag pattern along the side of the cheese. The small wooden boards used for pressing the cheese also imprints the typical wheat ear pattern on the top and bottom.
This rustic molds are used outside of La Mancha as well. Thus, there are other Spanish sheep’s milk cheese with similar shape and markings, known commonly as “Manchego style” cheese.
The true Manchego cheese, however, is made only from whole milk of the Manchega sheep raised in the “La Mancha” region. This region is a vast high plateau, more than 600 meters above sea level, which extends from east to west and north to south, adjoining the provinces of Toledo, Cuenca, Ciudad Real and Albacete, all in the Castile-La Mancha Autonomous Region southeast of Madrid.
Manchego cheese has a long historic and literary tradition, as it was mentioned by Cervantes in the legendary “Don Quixote of La Mancha”. Today, there are two types of Manchego cheese: the farmhouse type, made with unpasteurized sheep’s milk and the industrial type, made with pasteurized milk.
In both cases, however, milk from Manchega sheep is the only type used and the cheese is produced in clearly defined homogenous surroundings of wheat fields, fallow land and brush fields. The climate is extreme continental with cold winters and hot summers.
Labeled “Denominación de Origen Protegida” (D.O.P.)
Region of La Mancha (Castilla- La Mancha). Article #4 of the Denomination of Origin Ruling defines the area where Manchego cheese can be produced, within the provinces of Toledo, Ciudad Real, Cuenca y Albacete.
La Mancha is a region with a long live-stock breeding tradition. Wool and animal bones have been found in some archeological sites, as well as different utensils used to produce cheese as early as II century BC.
Early Roman historians wrote about the live-stock farming in the peninsula, especially in “Acampo Espartario”, the name given by Romans to the region of La Mancha. Muslims habited the area from VIII to XI centuries. They called it “Manyá”, meaning “land without water”. With time the name would transform into “Mangla” or “Mancla”, and finally “Mancha” around the XIII century.
La Mancha is high plateau, of about 650 to 800 m. in height (2000 feet) and an area of more than 35000 Sq Km. (13500 sq miles). It is made of flat lands and hills with an extreme continental climate, with cold winters and long dry summers, scarce rainfall, and large daily temperature changes.
For a long time this area was in dispute between Southern Muslims and Northern Christians, who fought for the control of the pastures. These fights were the origin of the “mestas”, itinerant stock-farmers that organized the displacements of the Christian herds protected by the Christian soldiers against the Muslim attacks.
In the XII century King Alfonso VI conquered Toledo and forced the Muslims to retreat back to Andalucía. The lack of stablity forced the legalization of the “Honrado Concejo de la Mesta” in 1273 by King Alfonso X ‘the Wise’ in order to organize the cooperation of the stock-farmers.
In the XVII century farming advanced. The efficient use of the pastures forced the declining of the stock-farming and ended in the disappearance of the mesta in 1836. Advancement in farmings forced the conversion of stock-farms into both stock and land farmers, forcing the herds to become sedentary. As a result, the production of wool declined, and the live-stocking industry specialized in the production of meat and cheese. Cheese production was no longer marginal, and the manchega breed of sheep became instrumental in establishing cheese production techniques.
In the late XIX and begining of XX centuries the first studies on Manchego Cheese were published. During this century the increased specialization of the farms has made La Mancha the base of a powerful cheese industry. Manchego Cheese producers have artisanal techniques while still managing to have intense production.
Manchego Cheese has been protected by the Denomination of Origin since 1984. The D.O. that stipulates the exclusive use of milk from manchega sheep breed, as well as an aging period of a minimum of 60 days.
Manchego is an aged cheese, from semi-cured to cured, made only with milk from manchega sheep breed, unpasteurized or pasteurized. It is produced through an enzimatic coagulation. The paste is pressed and uncooked.
The base milk has to have a minimum of 6% fat. The milk coagulates at 28 to 32 º C (82 a 89 ºF) after adding animal curd. Occasionally lactic ferments and calcium salts are also added. This results in a compact curdle within 45 to 60 minutes.
The curdle must then be cut to obtain lumps of 5 to 10 mm. (1/5″ to 2/5″). The resulting lumpy paste is then slowly reheated to about 40ºC (104ºF) The liquid is removed and the dried paste put into molds where it is pressed for several hours. The salting is external, and it is achieved either by rubbing with dry salt, by immersing the cheese in highly salted water, or by a combination of both methods. The percentage of the salt in the weight of the cheese can not be higher than 2.3% after two months of aging.
The aging process must be done in fresh areas, with a humidity level of 75 to 85%, for at least 60 days.
The rind is closed, clean well engraved, of a yellow to a brownish beige color. 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.
The shape is cylindrical, with flat top and bottom surfaces engraved with the tipical “flower” left by the wooden presses. The sides show a zigzag pattern produced by the mat-weed (esparto) of the molds. Today, industrially produced cheeses have the same engraving, predesigned in the new industrial molds.
While every cheeses weights between 2 and 3.5 Kg, (4 to 8 lb.) the average weight is 3 kg. (6.5 lb.).
The intense taste and crumbly texture make it perfect to eat it as is, with a slice of bread.
As the focal point of Antipasto, Manchego can be served with olives, sun-dried tomatos, crusty bread and a robust red wine (Rioja) or a dry sherry (Fino).
It is equally enjoyable as a snack or dessert with fruit or fruit tarts.
The aromatic intensity of a Manzanilla wine makes it an excellent foil for this cheese. The result is a magnificent combination of aromas giving a new sensation of complexity and elegance. Each brings out the flavor of the other and the fresh aromas are reminiscent of flowers, nuts and lavender.
Mushroom and Manchego Cheese Timbale
2 tablespoon butter
2 cup very finely chopped carrots
2 large scallions, finely chopped
1 1/2 cups (about 1/4 pound) finely chopped mushrooms
11/3 cups heavy cream
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon paprika, preferably Spanish style
A generous grating of nutmeg
2 cup grated Spanish Manchego Cheese
Melt 1 tablespoon of the butter in a skillet and sauté the carrots and scallions slowly for about 5 minutes, until the carrots are tender. Turn up the heat, add the remaining tablespoon of butter, and sauté the mushrooms for a minute or so.
In a bowl lightly beat together the cream, eggs, salt, paprika and nut. Stir in the cheese and the sautéed vegetables. Butter 6 individual custard cups, divide the vegetable mixture among them, and place in a pan of hot water (bain-marie). Bake at 325º F for 25 minutes, or until a knife inserted in the custard comes out clean. Unmold and serve warm.
If you make them in advance, re-heat by covering with foil and returning to the bain-marie for 10 minutes.
Authyor: Penelope Casas
(C) 1985, “Tapas, the Little dishes of Spain”
Where to find Spanish Cheeses in USA Most of the Gourmet Food Stores in the US carry some or most of the best Spanish Cheeses.