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January 2008

The Iberian Cheese Marathon

John A. Partridge
Dept. of Animal Science

Wow! Getting from Roquefort-sur-Soulzon to our next region of cheese exploration is a serious uphill climb through the Pyrenees Mountains, which stretch from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea. The Iberian Peninsula (Iberia) is the southwestern anchor of Europe and is made up of Spain, Portugal, Andorra and Gibraltar. Our first stop will be in the Principality of Andorra. At a total area of 181 square miles, we won’t find a large cheese industry but a small amount of a fermented Brie-style cheese is made during summer months from local sheep and goat milk.

We are now ready to move in a relatively clockwise direction around Iberia. Our first stop for lunch includes Urgelia, a pasteurized cows’ milk cheese from the Catalan Pyrenees. Semi-soft and creamy with a robust flavor it compliments a salad quite nicely. Urgelia cheese also has excellent melting properties so is often used in baking and grilling. For dessert, Mato cheese, a fresh cheese very similar to ricotta is served with honey. At suppertime our waiter suggests we try a Fresian cow milk cheese from the Balearic Island of Minorca in the nearby Mediterranean Sea. Mahon comes in three versions including soft, semi-cured and cured, all based on the length of time in the aging room. An interesting fact about Mahon is the use of herbs to provide the thickening of the cheese instead of animal rennet. A young cheese will be mild and suited well to snacking and sandwiches while an aged Mahon will substitute for the Grana cheeses of Italy.

As we move west into the region of Castilla La Mancha, the cheese most often discussed is Manchego. Considered the first Spanish cheese, Manchego is made from either raw or pasteurized milk of Manchego sheep. The cheese is cured for a minimum of 60 days but more likely 3 to 6 months in natural caves. It develops a strong spicy flavor, firm texture and a few small eyes. Like most of the cheeses discussed in our little tour of Iberian cheeses, Manchego is protected by its “Denominacion de Origen” (DO), which indicates the breed of sheep, the geographical location of the caves, and the minimum aging period.
Moving again toward the southwest we head for Portugal. On the way, a quick stop for lunch gave us the opportunity to experience another maritime cheese called Mojorero. The large wheels from unpasteurized goats’ milk are made by artisans on Feurteventura in the Canary Islands. Served with a fruit platter and a local wine, Mojorero makes an excellent lunch.

Like Spain, Portugal has many cheeses with DO protection. Serra da Estrela, a washed rind cheese from the 12th Century known as the king of Portuguese cheeses has DO protection. The cheese is made from sheep milk, which is coagulated with the wild thistle (Cynara cardunculus). Serra da Estrela has a rind yet is almost spoonable in the center when it is young. At this stage the popular method of consumption involves scooping the soft center out with hearty bread. When aged in caves high in the Beira region of central Portugal the cheese becomes increasingly hard and chewy. Also like Spain, a maritime flavor can be found in Portugal repertoire of cheeses. Sao Jorge is a Cheddar-type cheese that is made from cows’ milk on the island Sao Jorge in the Azores Archipelago in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Portugal has many fine cheeses and one should take more time to investigate but our virtual time is short so to the north and east we head for a couple more stops in Spain.

Due north of Portugal, we re-enter Spain in the region of Galicia, home of Tetilla cheese. Tetilla is a pasteurized, cow milk cheese that is made in the shape of a flattened, pear-shaped cone with a nipple (tetilla) on the top (think Hershey Kiss.) The cheese is only aged for 1 to 2 months and has a slightly acid and salty flavor. Due to the semi-soft body and relatively mild flavor, this cheese is a favorite snack for children. Although there are many more fine cow, goat, and sheep milk cheeses to be found along the northern coast of Spain, we will make just one more stop in the region of Asturias.

Much the same as the Aveyron area of France, where Roquefort is made, the Asturias region is blessed with many natural limestone caves that typically stay at 90% relative humidity and 7 to 13°C (45 to 55°F). As you might suspect, the cheese at this stop is a blue-veined cheese made with Penicillium mold. Cabrales is made mostly from cows’ milk, however variety is introduced because goat and sheep or a mixture of any of the three may be used in the manufacture of this intriguing cheese. The two to four kilogram wheels exhibit a sticky yellow rind with an intense aroma. The flavor is predictably strong, spicy and acid but will show large variations due to the different milk used in manufacture.

Our tour of the Iberian Peninsula has come to an end, but we are not ready to stop traveling so let’s go east to Bilbao, Spain. We will sit in a café, have a meal of good local cheese, bread and maybe a little wine, and decide if we are going to take the ferry from Bilbao to Portsmouth (Cheshire and Stilton) or from Bilbao to Amsterdam (Edam and Danbo).

References

Artisanal Premium Cheese. 2007. http://www.artisanalcheese.com/departments.asp?dept=1095
igourmet.com. 2007. Specialty Cheeses http://www.igourmet.com/shoppe/shoppe.aspx?cat=1
The World Factbook. Gibraltar. 2007. US-CIA https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/print/gi.html

 

 

 

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