Friday, June 10, 2011

Cheese: Manchego

Manchego cheese, officially known as Queso Manchego, 
is granted PDO (Protested Designation of Origin) status by the European Union. To be called Queso Manchego: it must be made from the whole milk (pasteurised or raw) of Manchega sheep raised in the La Mancha region of Spain (south of Madrid); it must be produced in the La Mancha region which includes portions of the provinces of Toledo, Cuenca, Ciudad Real and Albacete (below, a picture of a windmill we took in Consuegra, in the heart of La Mancha - Don Quixote country); 
it must be aged at least 60 days, but no more than two years; and it must be pressed in a cylindrical mold with a maximum height and diameter of 12 and 22 cm, respectively.  The only permitted additives are natural rennet or any other approved coagulating enzyme and salt. Manchego was traditionally pressed in plaited grass baskets which left a zig-zag pattern on the rind. 
Todays molds leave the same pattern on the rind, but only because it is embossed into the mold. 
Varieties of Manchego depend on the age. Fresco is aged only two weeks to two months and can generally only be found in Spain. It has a rich, mild and sweet flavor. Curado (cured), the kind I got from Trader Joe's, which was aged six months, is age for three months to a year, is semi-firm and has a firmer, more complex flavor, sweet and nutty. 
Viejo (aged), aged a year or more, is firm with a sharper flavor the longer it is aged and a pepperiness to it. The color can vary from white to pale lemon-yellow, depending upon the season and quality of milk. The rind is yellow to brownish beige. It often has small air pockets and a distinctive flavor, according to Wikipedia, "well developed but not too strong, creamy with a slight piquancy, and leaves an aftertaste that is characteristic of sheep's milk." In my own taste test, I found the Manchego mild and thickly textured. The cheese near the rind was even more thickly textured and drier. It had a taste of grain. 
I have recently had Idiazabal and Ossau-Iraty cheeses, both made of sheep's milk in the Spanish and French Pyrenees. I would like to do a side-by-side comparison of Manchego and Idiazabal - my guess is they would be comparable. 
I did do a comparison with Ossau-Iraty and I found the Ossau-Iraty to be more flavorful, more pleasantly textured (smoother) and sweeter. Manchego cheese is one of the 1001 Foods You Must Taste Before You Die. La Mancha is a high plateau of flat lands and hills with cold winters and long dry summers, large fluctuations in daily temperature and little rainfall. It has a long tradition of live-stock breeding. The Moors (Muslims) who inhabited the region from the 8th to 11th centuries called it "Manya," meaning "land without water." By the 13th century, the word changed to "Mancha." The sheep milk can be raw or pasteurized and is coagulated by enzymes. The paste is heated to 104 degrees, any liquid is removed, and the dried paste is put into molds where it is pressed for several hours. It can be salted externally by rubbing with dry salt or by immersing the cheese in highly salted water. Aging is done in an area with humidity of 75% to 85%.

I recently bought some viejo (aged 12 months) Manchego by Garcia Baquero and liked it very much. I also love the windmill on the label which reminds me of the windmills we saw in La Mancha.
It was firm, but not too hard, yet very mild, and had the marvelous sheepy flavor that I love. I find that I tend to like the aged cheeses because of the stronger flavor. Given a choice, I would take the one year over the six months aged version. 
The stamped rind was a darker brown than the one I had previously. This is a very nice snacking cheese, just cut off a slice and eat. 

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