Manchego Cheese Varieties

Manchego-the traditional sheep’s milk cheese of Spanish cuisine-is really the ideal culinary ambassador, as representative of Spanish culture as Parmigiano-Reggiano for Italian or Roquefort for French. As an artisanal cheese, it is accessible to all levels of maturity, and its combination of flavors — a delicate balance between buttery, tart, sweet and nutty — distinguishes it from the more joyful pleasures of the crowd on the cheese board. Loved by chic aunts and fussy child brothers, Manchego is undeniably different from cow’s milk cheese, but without the polarizing playfulness of Goat. And while sheep’s milk products are often expensive, the small wheels that are usually made age relatively quickly, which to some extent compensates for the cost of the expensive main ingredient. (It also helps that manchego’s balanced but concentrated flavor means a little goes a long way.) Perhaps the best part is that Manchego easily crosses the line between “basic” and “Boutique” and can therefore be considered a truly democratic dairy product.

According to The Oxford Companion to Cheese, Manchego is the most popular Spanish cheese, accounting for more than a third of the country’s total traditional cheese production. Its popularity has certainly also had an international impact. Carlos Yescas, food scientist and program director of the Oldways Cheese Coalition, explains that the rapid success of cheese in the United States is partly due to the promotional efforts of the Spanish government, but he also points to milk. “There was almost no sheep’s milk in the United States,” he says. “It was a space where Manchego could come and live. Good Manchego, the first ones to come, they are very easy to eat — they are not super salty, not super sweet, they have the kind of seasoning of Manchega milk. They are nutty and very well rounded.”

Until the Manchego spilled over, the most readily available sheep’s milk cheeses in the United States were Italian Pecorino Romano and its ilk-long-term aged cheeses that are delicious, sparingly scattered over pasta, but too aggressively salty and spicy to nibble on. Yescas explains: “[Manchego] is a good cheese that allows itself a lot of things. It can be eaten with honey or with Marconas, simply eaten alone or with a little Membrillo. It is a cheese that has been presented as a dessert cheese, as a kind of refined cuisine, something to enjoy like that. It was an easy sell.”

What to buy

The real Manchego is protected by the Spanish designation of origin protegida (DOP) and the European protected designation of origin (PDO). So, if you see the GU badge on the label or notice a small numbered plate pressed into the surface of the bark, you can be sure of some key characteristics defined in the DOP guidelines. Like Cheddar and Savoy Tomme, Manchego is an uncooked pressed curd; it must be made from the spicy and fatty milk of the Manchega sheep in their Native provinces of Albacete, Ciudad Real, Cuenca and Toledo, an area south and southeast of Madrid that constitutes the La Mancha region. The vast arid region has been home to pastoralists and cheese makers for millennia (it also contains the largest contiguous plonk region in the world).

The wheels of the iconic cheese are easily recognizable by their barks, which are structured in a zigzag pattern by shaping them in plastic basket molds or traditional braided grass. The natural bark is usually treated with an anti-mold agent and a thin layer of wax is often added. In addition to the bark, DOP-approved wheels also include a tab or label that verifies your credentials.

In Spain, Manchego wheels are classified according to their age, ranging from the two-week fresco to Semicurado (three weeks to four months), Curado (three to six months) and Añejo or Viejo (one to two years). However, the overlap between the categories, as well as the extra time that the cheese spends on Transport and customs routes, can lead to confusion about the designations, which is why Manchego is usually advertised here in the United States with its numerical age.

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