Aside from Chorizo sausage, Manchego cheese is, arguably, the most famous Spanish food export. This unique cheese is made from sheep’s milk and is prized for its crumbly, creamy texture, and beautifully balanced sweet and savory flavor. Manchego features heavily in Spanish cuisine and is often served with tapas but is flavorful enough to serve with plain bread
History and geography
There is no clear indication of the exact origins of Manchego cheese. However, there is archaeological evidence of cheese production in Spain as far back as the Bronze Age.
Manchego is produced in the La Mancha region of Spain. The centrally located region includes the provinces of Albacete, Cuenca, Ciudad Real, and Toledo. La Mancha is the largest plain in Spain and is used primarily for farming and agriculture. Despite its harsh, semi-arid climate the region produces large quantities of wine grapes and cereal crops. Sheep are one of the area’s primary livestock and their milk is used for the production of Manchego cheese.
If the name La Mancha is ringing any bells, it’s probably due to its presence in historical literature and musical theater. La Mancha is the setting for the seminal novel, Don Quixote de La Mancha. This story features the delusional knight errant Don Quixote who jousted with windmills and was later adapted into the popular musical, The Man from La Mancha.
As mentioned, Manchego cheese is made from sheep milk. The milk is poured into large vats and heated while cultures and rennet are added. This process separates the milk into solid curds and liquid whey. The curds are removed, drained of any excess whey, and pressed into molds. Traditionally, Manchego was pressed into grass hand-woven baskets, which is the source of the distinct zigzag pattern on the rind. While some producers still use this method, most Manchego cheese is made using plastic molds that replicate the traditional design.
Once the whey has been pressed out of the cheese rounds, they are soaked in a salt brine and brushed with olive oil to aid the preservation. The cheese is then aged for between 30 days to 2 years.
The balanced and complex flavor of Manchego cheese is unmistakable and has resulted in it becoming one of the most famous Spanish food exports. The cheese is either ivory, off-white, or a pale yellow depending on the age and has a firm crumbly, yet buttery texture. Fresh Manchego has a uniform consistency, however as the cheese ages, it develops small air pockets and crystalline structures similar to those you’ll find in extra mature cheddar.
The flavor of Manchego is a pleasantly balanced mix of savory, tangy, and slightly sweet. The cheese is somewhat sharp, but not overwhelmingly so, and features creamy, nutty notes throughout. There is an unmistakable piquant finish that lingers in the mouth that is common with all cheeses made from sheep milk.
Types of Manchego
Manchego production is protected and categorized by the European Union and the Spanish regulatory system. As a result, cheese can only be sold under the Queso Manchego name if it meets specific requirements. The cheese must be produced in the La Mancha region, it must be made from whole sheep’s milk (from sheep bred and raised in La Mancha), it must be aged for a minimum of 30 days and maximum of two years, and it must be pressed in molds of approved dimensions.
There are four types of Manchego cheese that are categorized by age.
Fresco: Fresco Manchego has been aged for about two weeks. This cheese is almost impossible to find outside of Spain and has a rich flavor. Due to the short aging process, this cheese cannot be officially labeled as Manchego cheese.
Semicurado: This is cheese that has been aged for between 30 days and 4 months. This cheese is semi-firm with a freshness and a sweetness that is less present in older Manchego cheese.
Curado: Aged for 3-6 months, this cheese is relatively firm with a mix of nutty and sweet notes.
Viejo: Finally we have Viejo which is aged for between 1-2 years. This cheese is the firmest of the bunch and has started to develop a crystalline structure throughout. The aging process results in this cheese having a pronounced sharpness.