The Don Quixote of Cheeses
The summer after I graduated from college, I was lucky enough to travel to Spain with my family. Before my happy two-week jaunt, I knew extremely little about this famous Iberian country. Matadors, castanets, flamenco... and I'm out . I mean, that's kind of it, right?
Um, WRONG. Wrong wrong wrong. Wrong.
For starters, the sheer variety of cultures and lifestyles present within this one peninsula is enough to make your head spin - from the chic, cosmopolitan streets of Madrid, with it's world-class museums and elegant boulevards, to the beautiful ancient architecture in hot and dusty Seville, to the sea-sprayed air of ever-hip-and-groovy Barcelona... And that's just three cities. We didn't even make it out into the mountains of Basque country, the Imperial City of Toledo, or the trendy beaches of Majorca. So yeah... Spain ain't just about the matadors. No duh, Alice.
And guys, you know what I'm going to say next, right? The food was TO DIE FOR! It will come as a shock to none of you that the Bergen clan spent many a pleasant hour eating our weight in salty jamon, buttery olives, eggy, comforting tortillas, and gorgeous seafood paella spiked with precious saffron. Wandering through the colorful, bountiful stalls of the Mercat de St. Josep La Boqueria in Barcelona was one of the most visually stunning and hunger-inducing moments of my life. Yeah, the Spanish clearly know what they're doing when it comes to food.
(Full disclosure, we also ate at an "experimental" restaurant one night which served, amongst other baffling things, thickly cut pigeon crudo encased in a cloud of pungent woodsmoke, and a golden egg made of spun sugar that hid an actual raw egg inside of it... let's just say that it was one of the most confusing food experiences of our lives. But that's a story for another time.)
Amongst the many delights that I discovered while exploring the world of Spanish cuisine was, of course, a cheese. A cheese that was my gateway to the world of gamy, buttery sheep's milk cheeses. A cheese that varied from mild, pliable, and milky to crumbly, nutty, and piquant. A cheese that I found myself slathering in membrillo and nibbling on incessantly even after I thought I was full to the point of bursting. Oh yes, my friends: I am talking about the one and only manchego.
For those of you who haven't had the pleasure, let me briefly introduce you to one of Spain's most popular cheeses. Manchego is a PDO cheese (protected designation of origin), which means that any cheese labeled "manchego" must adhere to a set of strict guidelines. It must be produced in one of four specific areas within the La Mancha region, and must use full-fat milk from local manchega sheep. The milk can be either raw or pasteurized, but needs to be formed in a 12 inch cylindrical press and has to be aged for a minimum of 60 days. While not required, manchego wheels usually have a distinctive zig-zag patterned rind which was originally caused by forming the wheels in grass baskets, but is now just a stylistic nod to the old tradition.
Outside of those guidelines, however, there is a lot of room for interpretation. Some cheeses are sold at the 60 day mark - young, fresh, and mild cheeses labeled "fresca" - while others are aged anywhere from three months to over a year. Some cheeses are cured in olive oil and herbs, inhibiting the growth of a rind, while others are encased in wax or allowed to grow a natural rind. Most versions that you'll find on the market today, particularly in the US, are made in factories, while a few small producers still make cheese on their farms.
Coming back from this trip to Spain, I would get super excited every time I'd see manchego in a shop or on a menu. However, I soon discovered that not all manchegos - especially those imported to the US - are created equal. As is the case with many "I-found-this-amazing-cheese-on-my-trip-to-Europe" stories, I had a hard time finding a version of this cheese that was worthy of its name. Nine times out of ten, when I'd indulge in my favorite Iberian treat, I ended up being sorely disappointed.
It wasn't until many years later, when I became a cheesemonger, that I was introduced to a manchego that really blew my socks off: 1605 Manchego by Finca Sierra de la Solana. One of the last farmstead manchegos left in Spain, these raw milk, naturally rinded wheels were exactly what I had been looking for. Every wheel I've ever opened consistently smells like buttery, movie-theater popcorn, and tastes like roasted nuts and toasted brioche. That precise consistency is no accident: every wheel of 1605 that enters the US has been carefully selected for taste and texture by the cheese wizards at Essex Street Cheese Company. And boy, do they know what they're doing or what.
Want to get in on some of this dreamy Spanish cheese action? On October 24th you can! Join us for Cheese Club and see what all of the fuss is about - believe me, this is an evening that you seriously don't want to miss. Hope to see you all there!