From the land of Don Quixote comes Manchego, Spain’s most famous cheese. Authentic Manchego is very distinctive as it’s made exclusively from the whole milk of Manchega sheep. These sheep graze the high plateau of La Mancha, nibbling on the abundance of wild herbs that flourish in this central rocky region. The result is a cheese with a very special taste and aroma, one that can only be described as the classic taste of Espana.
Like Spain’s famous Serrano ham and olive oil, Manchego is protected by the country’s Denominacion de Origen (DO). This council controls production, ensures the exclusive use of milk from registered DO farms, and dictates an ageing period of at least 60 days in natural caves.
It seems this desire for a pure, unique, high-quality cheese has been passed down through the ages. Archaeological remains show that Manchego was produced and eaten many centuries before Christ. Though their methods are unknown, Bronze Age inhabitants of the La Mancha region made a sheep’s milk cheese that likely tasted similar to modern Manchego.
These early cheese makers used the milk from a race of sheep that were ancestors to today’s Manchega. Over time, the breed was domesticated, but never allowed to mix with other sheep breeds. Thus the unique, time-honoured characteristics of the Manchega sheep and Manchego cheese have lived on for centuries.
The flavour of Manchego cheese ranges from mild and subtle to full-bodied and tangy, depending on its age. Typically, Manchego is sold in three different states of maturity:
- Fresco (fresh): Aged only about two weeks, fresh Manchego is bone white in colour. It has a texture similar to goat’s cheese, but offers a much richer, buttery flavour. Produced in very small quantities, Manchego Fresco can be difficult to find.
- Curado (aged 3-6 months): This semi-firm variety is pleasant, sweet, and nutty. Mild and smooth, it melts nicely and is often used in quesadillas.
- Viejo (aged one year): With great age, the texture of Manchego becomes firm, almost reminiscent of Parmesan. It displays a hint of sharpness and a rich, deep, peppery flavour. The yellowish cheese is typically used for grating.
Manchego cheese is also produced in a number of homemade, artisan varieties. These include smoked Manchego and those flavoured with rosemary, the prevalent wild herb of the countryside.
Manchego cheese can be found in the gourmet section of many supermarkets. When buying already cut wedges, look for cheese that is consistently coloured and textured throughout. The inside should be white (young) to ivory (older) in colour and the paste should appear smooth with a sprinkling of small eyes. An authentic cheese will feature an official DO tab labelled “Manchego” on the back.
If purchasing a whole Manchego cheese, look for barrel-shaped wheels with the traditional braided basketweave design around the outside edges. The top and bottom of the cheese should be flat with lines that divide the surface into four equal parts. The natural colour will vary from ivory to light golden brown, but the brand label must state the cheese is made from 100% Manchego ewe’s milk. Look for a DO council label and serial number.
Rich and exuberant, Manchego is part of a great series of Spanish sheep cheeses that includes Zamarano, Castelleno, Cadiz, and Calahora. Every day, Manchego can be grated over soups, salads, and rice, or melted into sandwiches and grilled cheese.
However, to enjoy the true flavour of Spain, Manchego is best served the traditional way. Slice the cheese into wedges and offer with Spanish olives and thin slices of Serrano ham for tapas. Or, for a light dessert, try Manchego with fresh fruit, figs and dates, and membrillo. This traditional quince preserve creates a soft, sweet contrast to the cheese’s bit of saltiness.
As for pairing Manchego with wine, choose from Spain’s most famous varietals: a dry Manzanilla sherry, a Montecillo Rioja, or a sparkling Cava from the Jerez Region.