In a country of mountains and fine pasture lands, tending flocks for cheese making is an important part of economical and gastronomical culture. Portugal currently produces upwards of 13 PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) status cheeses, a uniquely exquisite selection made from sheep, cow, and goat’s milks. And while the textures, flavours and shapes may vary from region to region, the country’s cheese traditions remain consistent. Trade secrets have been passed down from generation to generation, and to this day, many cheeses are still made by hand.
You, too, can savour the artistry and craftsmanship of Portuguese cheese by trying one (or several) of these fine varieties:
It’s said that only experienced artisans have the know-how to produce this gourmet favourite. Made for generations at the foot of the Arrabida Mountains, this unpasteurised sheep’s milk cheese is handcrafted with thistle flower instead of animal rennet. The result is a thick, smooth, and soft cheese with a strong, earthy aroma. When ripe, Azeitao has a rich, creamy, slightly sour flavour with hints of flowers or sweet herbs. When left at room temperature, the cheese becomes almost melty.
This type of sheep or goat’s milk cheese is common all over Portugal, particularly in the regions of Idanha-a-Nova and Fundao. But the most famous variety hails from the Castelo Branco, the area that lends the cheese its name. White to straw yellow in colour, the semi-soft cheese has a natural rind and a very intense aroma and spicy flavour. It is best eaten as a dessert or snack.
This artisan cow’s milk cheese is produced in tiny factories on the island of Sao Jorge in the Azores Islands. Firm to semi-firm, it has a yellowish colour and small “eyes” reminiscent of fine English cheddar. The dark yellow rind is hard and smooth and sometimes dotted with brownish-red spots or coated with paraffin. Sao Jorge has a strong, clean aroma and a lightly spicy taste.
Perhaps the most famous traditional cheese in southern Portugal, Serpa gets its strong scent and spicy flavour from the unique climate, soil and pasture of the Alentejo region. Made from sheep’s milk, the cheese is curdled with vegetable rennet and wrapped in cloth to mature. Inside the natural rind, the flesh is so creamy that it almost spills when cut. Serpa is one of the most genuinely crafted and high quality cheeses from Portugal.
Serra da Estrela
Famous the world over as the “King of Portuguese Cheese,” this sheep’s milk variety has been made for centuries by shepherds in the Serra da Estrela Mountains in Beira. It is crafted entirely by hand under rigorous rules – even the curds are broken up manually. Soft and almost spreadable, the white cheese has a smooth, thin, straw-coloured rind and an unmistakable aroma and flavor. It’s often described as having a clean, perfumed bouquet, and a sweet finish that hints of burnt toffee.
Originating from the Tras-os-Montes region of Portugal, this sheep’s milk cheese is characterized by a cylindrical shape and a flat, even rind that’s covered with paprika. Inside, the straw coloured flesh has an oily texture and a soft, smooth flavour. One variety of Terrincho is cured in wooden barrels filled with rye to give it a distinctive rye taste.