Cheese making has a long history in Spain, with some of the country's cheese varieties dating back hundreds of years. The oldest is said to be a manchego-like queso made by shepherds who lived in the Iberian Peninsula long before the Roman conquest of the region.
Spain has long been known for its cheeses, which range from the sweet and salty manchego found on the country's tapas to the funky cabrales found in the saucier's pantry. The country makes cheese from three different types of milk: cow, goat, and sheep milk. Some cheeses may necessitate the blending of two or even three types of milk.
Most old cheeses are made using raw milk; that said, cheeses made using pasteurized or cooked milk are just as popular. The cheeses produced can be consumed fresh or aged for a period ranging from a week to more than two years. The attributes and recipes of most Spanish cheeses are protected by DOP (Denominación de Origen Protegida) throughout the European Union.
Cheese making has a long history in Spain, with some of the country's cheese varieties dating back hundreds of years. The oldest is said to be a manchego-like queso made by shepherds who lived in the Iberian Peninsula long before the Roman conquest of the region. The next chapter in the country’s cheese making history would unfold nearly 700 years later, with the fall of the Roman Empire. The country’s monasteries would attempt to revive the lost art, making considerable progress in the decades to come. It was the monks' practice to share their research with local nomadic shepherds, who would then disseminate the information to the general populace during the course of their travels across the country.
This led to almost every region in the country adapting the art in some form or another, using different types of milk and techniques depending on the palates and climate of the area. Spanish climates and microbial strains made for some truly unique cheeses that stood their ground against popular French and Italian variants on the global market. This would go on till the start of the first world war, after which the production of artisanal cheeses would be banned for nearly 50 years, following a decree issued by the dictator Francisco Franco, who ruled the country from 1939 to 1975. The decree outlawed the production of milk and milk-based products that didn't meet the minimum output of 10,000 liters per day, which essentially made artisanal cheese production illegal.
This, however, only increased the amount of artisanal cheese on the market, since farmers who did not want to sell their milk to larger companies had to find new uses for the liquid. It is estimated that nearly 25% of the milk produced by the country annually was used to make cheese that was sold on the black market. This black market is credited with saving several niche cheeses that would have otherwise been lost through the half-century long ban, including several of the country’s 26 PDO cheeses. Fast forward to today, and the Spanish cheese market is back in full swing. The country’s many cheeses are staples in both traditional and contemporary Spanish restaurants all over the world, including ones that boast the prestigious Michelin star. We've compiled a list of must try cheeses for you below, from the quintessential to the exotic.
Manchego: For good reason, manchego is the most popular Spanish cheese. This firm cheese is characterized by a firm texture and a sweet taste, with a touch of salt. Rounds of manchego may be aged anywhere from two months to two years. Younger cheeses have a fruity palate with mild salinity, which takes on an intense umami flavor and saltiness with age. Manchego may be made with sheep's or cow’s milk. Slices of the cheese make an excellent inclusion in just about any Spanish plate, from tapas, to a table cheese that is eaten with fruits, nuts, and preserves.
Mahon: Queso Mahon is a distinctive cheese with a bright orange rind and an intense fruity flavor complemented by a buttery mouthfeel. The orange rind is a result of human intervention rather than bacterial growth. Cheese makers rub the rind of the cheese with paprika and olive oil in order to enhance taste and appearance throughout the cheese’s aging period. Mahon is best enjoyed on its own, with olive oil and fresh herbs.
Cabrales: This blue cheese is not for the faint of heart. Cabrales is made using a mixture of goat, sheep, and cow’s milk; in ratios that change depending on the region in consideration. The rounds themselves are aged in caves, which provide optimal conditions for the growth of the penicillin mold that gives the cheese its characteristically pungent taste. This cheese is best savored as part of a cheeseboard, paired with a sweet sherry.
Torta del Casar: This creamy cheese is unique in the fact that it is the only Spanish cheese that is made using vegetable rennet. The coagulant used for the task is a cardoon extract, made from wild cardoons (an edible thistle). This cheese is made using sheep's milk, and aged for a period of up to two months. The cheese features an incredibly creamy center that is almost liquid at room temperature. Torta del casar is best enjoyed on its own, with a glass of bold red wine.
Afuega'l Pitu: This soft cheese is renowned for its strong palate, which is said to be stronger than the most potent blue cheeses. The cheese is sold in small sacks that may resemble the shape of a teardrop or a bishop’s mitre and range in color between a pale white and a light orange. The cheese is produced year-round and may feature the addition of spices like paprika for color and flavor. The cheese is most often sold fresh, but it may also be aged to achieve harder textures, and more pronounced flavors. The cheese is traditionally eaten on its own or spread on bread as a light snack.