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Foods and Wines from Spain. Everything you should know about Spanish food. >> Cheese
Foods From Spain History: Cheese. Neolithic to New Wave

Foods From Spain History: Cheese. Neolithic to New Wave

Cheese is a product obtained from set (coagulated) milk. The setting agent, known as rennet, is extracted from the stomach walls of ruminants and other animals, particularly calves, and contains chymosin, a milk-clotting enzyme that acts on casein, a lactic protein which binds to calcium, solidifies to form calcium paracaseinate (the setting agent) and separates off from other liquids in the milk (whey, water, sugars). Other types of rennet are also used: vegetable rennet, found in thistle flowers and in fig sap, whose use dates back to Antiquity; chemical rennet, or pure chymosin, which is used industrially; and synthetic rennet, which comes in tablet form.

Brief etymology

In many Indo-European languages, the word for cheese is derived from the Classical Latin caseus, which actually refers to whey (Spanish queso , English cheese, German Käse, Portuguese queijo, etc.), and in many other from the more vulgar Latin formaticus, which refers to the forms or woven moulds in which the set milk was shaped (Catalan formatge, Italian formaggio, French fromage, etc.).

Cheese is one of the most typically Mediterranean products, and has a long history in the Middle East, Europe and Africa, though it is virtually unknown in Asia and was never made in pre-Columbian America.

Early livestock-keeping and the discovery of cheese

The quest for the origins of cheese takes one back at least as far as the beginnings of herding and grazing livestock. The climate changes that took place between 12000 and 8000BC are generally believed to have imposed a change of lifestyle on mankind. First, certain animal species were domesticated and kept alongside human groups, which they provided with food (meat and milk) and warm covering (skins and hides), so that hunting was no longer the only source of these necessities. Later, human groups that had practiced transhumance with their livestock settled, forming population nuclei. The early days of farming and livestock keeping are generally regarded as marking the start of the Neolithic period (6000-3000BC). The first species of animals to be domesticated so that their milk and meat could be consumed were sheep and goats, some 11,000 years ago in the Middle East.

Cheese may have originated with the ancient custom of using wineskin-like sacs made from the stomachs of ruminant animals to carry milk about: observation of the effect of the coagulant contained in the stomach walls could well have led to the chance discovery of how to make milk coagulate, and the potential it then had. For cheese is more than just a lactic derivative: it also represents a way of preserving some of the qualities of milk over a longer period of time in the form of a new foodstuff that is not only easily stored and transported but is also a richer source of energy than meat.

In 2008, a team of researchers at the University of Bristol, led by Richard P. Evershed, published a paper in ‘Nature’ magazine that confirmed finds of traces of cheese and other lactic products (cream, yoghurt, butter) in vessels dating from as far back as the 7th millennium BC, discovered in Neolithic and Calcolithic sites in the Middle East and south-eastern 1.Europe.

During the Neolithic period, the Iberian Peninsula appears to have been influenced by a somewhat complex mixture of native and external factors. However, on the strength of evidence from the known archaeological sites, most experts agree that livestock keeping began in Iberia in the 6th millennium BC.

First signs of cheese-making in the Iberian Peninsula

First signs of cheese-making in the Iberian Peninsula

The first tangible evidence of cheese-making in the Iberian Peninsula comes in the form of numerous cheese vessels and colanders (multi-perforated terracotta pots) unearthed during excavations of Neolithic and Calcolithic sites dating from the 4th millennium BC 2.on. These are strikingly similar to utensils still in use among certain present-day cultures in the mountains of North Africa where modern technology has not yet 3.penetrated. One particularly significant site was discovered in Los Millares, a town in Santafé de Mondújar (Almería, Andalusia), which gives its name to a Calcolithic culture that extended from the south-east to south-west of the Iberian Peninsula.

There are further signs of the making of cheese and other milk products all over the Iberian Peninsula: several sites have produced evidence indicative of their having been occupied by groups of transhumant shepherds or settled communities during the Bronze Age (3rd to 1st millennium BC). Examples include El Argar (Almería and Jaén in Andalusía, and Murcia) and various sites in present-day La Mancha (famous for its cheeses) dating from the period 2200 to 1500 4.BC.

The milk for Iberian cheeses would have been obtained mainly from sheep, which constituted the Peninsula’s most numerous livestock group, though milk from goats, cows and aurochs (a now extinct bovine species, the ancestor of today’s fighting bulls) was also used. Cultural mingling within the Peninsula, in combination with various outside influences, particularly from the end of the 2nd millennium BC on, resulted in interchange of ideas and traditions to do with cheese-making (mixed milks, the addition of salt and spices/herbs; fermenting and curing processes) and cheese-eating (with quince paste or honey; with certain types of bread; preserved in olive oil, and so on).

Cheese consumption in Ancient Greece and Rome

Cheese consumption in Ancient Greece and Rome

Apart from the Phoenicians and Carthaginians (themselves, incidentally, big cheese eaters), the Greeks and Romans were the cultures that influenced the Celtiberian peoples of the Iberian Peninsula the most.

Cheese (tyròs) was one of the main foodstuffs of Ancient Greece, and one of the most traditional. It was made primarily with goat’s and sheep’s milk (or a mixture of the two), though there are some textual references to cow’s, mare’s and donkey’s milk being used. Most of its various types of cheese were fresh cheeses, which were eaten at various stages of ripeness: ‘young’ or ‘green’ (the reference is to lack of maturity rather than to actual color), some of them being cream cheeses; ‘solidified’ cheese; and ‘dry’, or cured cheese. There was also a variety known as opías, which was made with vegetable rennet obtained from fig-sap. These cheeses would have been eaten raw or toasted, and were habitually used as a condiment in different meat and fish dishes, either in slices or grated and sprinkled on top. Finely grated dry cheese was also mixed in with flour for baking into bread and cakes/pies, and it was also a key ingredient in many classic sweet dishes. Cheese was also eaten as something in its own right, often accompanied by honey, oil, raisins and 5.nuts.

The Romans disseminated many cheese-making techniques all over the Mediterranean and Europe. They enjoyed both young and cured cheeses, and flavored some of them with different herbs and spices (pepper, thyme, cumin, parsley, coriander...) and other foodstuffs (garlic, raisins, pine kernels and other nuts). They also added flavor to meat and fish of various kinds by serving them with a cheese sauce. Like the Greeks, Roman soldiers used cheese as campaign rations because of its high energy content, durability and ready transportability. With their love of strong flavors, they were particularly fond of blue and smoked cheeses, these are just two of the many types of Roman cheese we know about. In his Geography, written in the 1st century AD, Strabo (64BC-24AD)

Cheese in early medieval Spain

The Germanic invasions of the Iberian Peninsula contributed cheese-making traditions from central Europe to the mix, and leaving their mark on the indigenous ones, already intermingled with the long Roman tradition. Some Christian monasteries emerged as veritable centers of experimental cuisine and these, along with the culinary culture of royalty and the aristocracy, can be credited with having created some of the cheeses known and loved in Europe today. Meanwhile, every shepherd and every locality were making their own, specific cheeses, using the milk obtained from their flocks between February and August to create a product that was both an all-year-round food and a barterable commodity. Both the practice of transhumance and the ancient network of pilgrimage routes leading through the Peninsula to Santiago de Compostela in Galicia (such as the Camino de Santiago and the Ruta or Vía de la Plata) served to spread the cheese-making lore of Spain and Europe and, indeed, the cheeses themselves, all over the country, where they were adapted to fit in with local foodways.

Documentary evidence 6.exists of the fact that highly desirable cheeses were being produced as early as the 10th century in the Picos de Europa, the mountainous mass in northern Spain that extends through the present-day regions of Asturias, Cantabria and Castile-León. The Picos region is still famous nowadays for its excellent cheeses, particularly blue cheeses, which are made by leaving them in damp mountain caves where they acquire natural mould from the Penicillium spores in the atmosphere.

Also in the Middle Ages, we find the first written references to pastureland, to the making of sheep’s milk cheeses, and to their serving as currency in regions which, today, are still the founts of three excellent cheeses: Torta del Casar and Queso de la Serena, made in Extremadura from the milk of merino sheep, and Idiazabal, made in the Basque Country and Navarra from the milk of native sheep breeds Latxa and Carranzana.

Cheese and the three religious traditions in Spain

Cheese and the three religious traditions in Spain

For Christians, cheese became important as a substitute for meat, which they were forbidden to eat on religious fasting days and during Lent. It was also an important food for adherents of the other religions that co-existed in Spain during the Middle Ages.

For the Jews, cheese is a primary food and as such can not be eaten in combination with meat. A cheese that appears frequently in Jewish gastronomy is keso blanko (the Sephardic version of queso blanco, or white cheese) - a fresh, unctuous, sheep’s milk cheese (with goat’s or cow’s milk sometimes mixed in) made with natural rennet. In countries where there has been a Jewish presence at some time in the past, very similar cheeses are still made - in Spain, for example (especially in Castile-León) one finds Queso de Burgos, Queso de Villalón (typical of Valladolid, Zamora and León), and various types of fresh goat’s cheeses, all of them dating back over a thousand years, from the time when the first Jewish communities arrived in the Iberian Peninsula in the 1st and 2nd centuries AD. The most strictly observant Jews were obliged to eat cheese made using rennet that was either vegetable-derived or obtained from the stomach of animals slaughtered according to the ritual laws of their religion – in other words, cheese had to be kosher.

Similarly, cheeses eaten by Muslims had to be made according to the specifications of halal - the set of practices considered permissible by Islamic law (Sharia), particularly concerning food. Anyway, the fact is that Muslims tend to prefer other kinds of lactic products such as junket and yoghurt to cheese.

The influence of both these religions on Spain’s cheeses has become blurred with the passage of time: for example, many Andalusian and Valencian cheeses made with ordinary animal rennet today would, in the Middle Ages, have used rennet that complied with the rules of each religion. However, there are examples where their influence lives on: Torta del Casar and Queso de la Serena, mentioned earlier, are still made with vegetable rennet obtained from dried thistle flowers (Cynara cardunculus, one of whose Spanish names is yerbacuajo, meaning ‘setting herb’).

The greater importance of cheese in Christian culture is therefore largely explained by the fact that no religious or traditional limitations were imposed on producing or eating it. As a result, there was a wider variety of cheeses in the central and northern parts of Spain (where the Muslims impinged less) significantly more of them being cured, mixed-milk and fermented cheeses.

In the Valencian region and Murcia, where the Muslim presence lasted many centuries, fresh cheeses are the specialty, while there is less of a cheese-making tradition in Andalusia which is more notable for other foods, ( with occasional exceptions in Granada, Cádiz and Málaga). The livestock-keeping tradition was also influential: this practice was more in evidence in Christian Spain, in areas where pastureland was more plentiful and whose population was more given to eating meat and animal products than fruit and vegetables, which were perceived as being typically Muslim and Jewish foods.

Cheese in late medieval Spain: the Mesta

Cheese-making was also allied to Spain’s hugely important national flock. Castile’s main economic resource during the Middle Ages and into the Modern Era was the high quality wool obtained from its native Merino sheep. Spain’s other native sheep breed, used particularly as a source of meat, is the Churra. Between them, the two breeds used to produce millions of liters of sheep’s milk which was used for making the various cheeses and other lactic derivatives that are so traditional a part of the Spanish diet.

There were several wool markets of international importance in Medina del Campo and Burgos (Castile-León). Shepherds capitalized on the uninhabited ‘march’, the no-man’s-land frontier zone, between Spain’s Christian and Muslim territories, for grazing their flocks. After the Christian Reconquest, these areas were repopulated and given over to crop-growing in the 13th century, in consequence of which the Castilian monarchs had to institute legal measures to safeguard the continuation of transhumant pasturage. Alfonso X (1221-1284), (known as Alfonso the Wise), brought the shepherds of Castile-León together with his creation in 1273 of the Honrado Concejo de la Mesta de Pastores (Honorable Council of Shepherds) and the Real Sociedad de Ganaderos de la Mesta (Royal Society of Cattlemen), a powerful, union-like association generally known as La Mesta. Among the privileges enjoyed by its members was the right to drive their animals along the cañadas reales, a network of ancient drovers’ roads that criss-crossed the country, parts of which are still in use today.

Cattle statistics

Data obtained for just seven Andalusian municipalities from the late 15th and early 16th centuries give some indication of the volume of livestock in Spain at that period, and the importance of each of the milk-producing species; sheep, 79,284; cattle, 24,040; goats, 7.16,088. This explains the predominance of goat’s and sheep’s milk cheeses in most of Spain. Cow’s milk for cheese-making was given more importance in the Cantabrian coastal regions (Galicia, Cantabria, Asturias...) of northern Spain, and in Catalonia and the Balearic Islands. Very few Spanish cheeses are made with cow’s milk alone (Galicia’s Queso de Tetilla, or Queso de Mahón-Menorca from the Balearics), though it is included in many other mixed-milk cheeses from the north of the country.

Cheese in Modern Era

Cheese in Modern Era

The pre-Columbian civilizations of the Americas made no cheese at all. Cheese-making began to acquire impetus in Latin America in the 17th century, by which time livestock imported from Spain (sheep, goats and, especially, cattle – this last spreading at a spectacular rate to supply the leather industry) had become established. The countries of Latin America with most significant modern-day cheese-making tradition are Mexico, Chile and Argentina.

In the 16th century, a new spice came into use: paprika-like pimentón was invented in Spain using a new product from America – the pepper. It is one of the most widely used flavorings in traditional Spanish cheeses or variants of them, sometimes being rubbed into the surface (as in Queso Majorero from the Canary Islands) and sometimes mixed into the coagulated milk (as in the various versions of the red Afuega’l Pitu cheeses from Asturias).

The archives of Spain’s royal household reveal its members to have preferred fresh cheeses, with mention also being made of cheeses from “Mallorca [...], Toledo, Pinto and Peñafiel”. The dietary advice of the period, as issued by the royal family’s medical advisers, tended to be rather anti-cheese, particularly of the goat’s milk variety (because it was smelly), though sheep’s cheeses were declared to be milder and cow’s milk cheeses more 8.nutritious.


Cheese has been made in La Mancha for the best part of two thousand years, using milk from Manchega sheep (one of the few breeds capable of adapting to such harsh terrain) and matured for at least two months. Until the 1950s, Manchego cheeses were a staple of the peasant diet (along with bread and belly pork) in their region of provenance. After the publication of Cervantes’ Don Quixote in the early 17th century, Manchego cheeses became better known and more widespread on the strength of being classic products of the Knight of the Woeful Countenance’s home patch. As a result of urban development during the Middle Ages, and of international trade in the Modern Era, royal courts throughout Europe now had access to different cheeses, especially ones from Spain, France, Italy, Holland and Germany. Trade in cheese intensified, particularly after the end of the 18th century, when large quantities began to be imported from the Netherlands.

Modernization of the cheese sector in Spain

The methods used for making Spain’s various types of cheese changed remarkably little from the Middle Ages right up to the mid-20th century. However, after 1880, with transhumant livestock-keeping - the mainstay of the Castilian economy for so many centuries – badly affected by the sharp drop in wool exports, the process of industrializing livestock products began. This would have been impossible had it not been for increased demand for meat, milk and cheese, and acceptance of the fact that the time had come for major improvements.

These changes reflected advances in agricultural methods (irrigated intensive crops; dedicating more land to growing fodder crops; fertilizers; and mechanized farming) and in biology as applied to livestock (experimental crossing with different European breeds, particularly orientated towards milk production in cattle). Some charcuterie manufacturers responded to the call for longer-lasting products, and to the generally increased demand, by starting to mechanize some of their processes fuelled by steam power.

The 19th century was also a time when food hygiene emerged as an issue for concern; new food preserving techniques appeared, as did pasteurization for milk, changing both production and consumption habits and the way in which some cheeses were made. The arrival of the new middle classes engendered a new approach to food, which now amalgamated traditional peasant dishes with urban cooking, giving rise to the style that has since become known as “home cooking” – for the most part traditional stews interspersed with more elaborate dishes inherited from a more elitista 8.cuisine.

Artisan way nonetheless

Throughout the 20th century, the many advances and discoveries achieved in the fields of bacteriology, chemistry and technology had the effect of modernizing the cheese producing sector to a certain degree. However, because of their very nature, the most traditional cheeses are still made in a highly artisan way to this day.

Any assessment of rural life and agricultural activity in early 20th century Spain needs to be approached with some skepticism. Modernizing measures, though important, were small-scale, as press reports of the period confirm. For example, in 1912 it was still considered newsworthy that the Asociación General de Ganaderos (General Association of Stockbreeders) was about to launch an initiative to improve and increase goat’s milk production by selecting for the most productive 9.females. That was how far the modernization of such a traditional, artisan sector had got: it was capable of recognizing the fact that if the same amount of cheese were to be produced with fewer goats and less pasturage, herd productivity had to be improved.

In the 1940s and 1950s, in the wake of the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), Spain suffered severe food shortages. During that period, cheese was one of the main foodstuffs covered by the nation’s ration books (proof of its status as a staple of the Spanish diet), much of it being supplied as aid by the US Government despite Spain’s having been excluded from the Marshall Plan.

In the course of the consumer revolution that began in the second half of the 20th century, new varieties of cheese appeared, and different mixes of milk and flavorings were experimented with; ideas were borrowed from more sophisticated markets, such as the United States’; cheeses were presented ready-packed and prepared for specific uses (grated, pulverized, cut into portions, sliced, and so on), and some middle bracket cheeses started to be produced industrially to meet huge demand and consumption.

Traditional cheese-making in Spain

Traditional artisan goat’s and sheep’s milk cheese-making in Spain is closely linked with transhumant pasturage - the peripatetic practice of shepherds moving their flocks about, often great distances, to take advantage of the best grazing all year round. Cheeses acquire individual qualities according to the process by which they are made, the place in which they are left to mature, the breed of livestock from which their milk came and the climate in different parts of the country. Not only was cheese a staple of the shepherd’s diet - a solid, readily transportable food that was also a ready source of energy - but it could also be made out in the countryside with the standard equipment he carried about with him (cup, plate, bowl and wooden mould). He would heat the milk with red hot stones, add rennet extracted from the stomach of a young lamb to coagulate it, and divide the set mixture into portions to fit the wooden moulds, pressing them until all the whey had been expelled. He would then wrap them in cloths and press them, salting the cheeses by immersing them in brine.

The maturation process was just as important as actually making the cheese, and involved various types of pastoral architecture in different parts of the country. In Castile, shepherds used adobe huts, whereas up in the north they lived in caves or temporary open-air shelters built of stone and wood. The quality of a cheese depended largely on how long it had matured and on which way the part of the cabin set aside for the purpose faced: this always had a window facing north and wooden shelves on which the cheeses could be laid out.

In some areas, they were smoked to keep insects at bay by burning green hawthorn branches, which also imparted a particular flavor to the cheese. Elsewhere, caves in the mountainside were used: cheeses were set out there and left to ripen for two to four months until the ambient moisture generated the mould that gives the blue veins characteristic of certain cheeses from the 10.Picos de Europa. They would then be transferred to cellars or other cool, draught-free places in village houses to mature a little longer.

Though cow’s milk and mixed milk cheeses are more closely associated with a settled lifestyle, their characteristics are also influenced by the local climate and the buildings in which they are matured. In La Mancha, for example, cheeses are matured wherever a little larder or cell can be fitted into a kitchen, yard or stone outbuilding, or in Cantabria, in huts known locally as cabañas pasiegas. Descendants of a type built in the Pas valley (Cantabria) from the 11th century on, these cabañas are typical of the region: built of stone, oak and slate, they have tiny windows that let minimal light into the two storeys within, one at ground level for cattle and the other above that serves as hayloft and living space, separated by a wooden partition. The heat given off by the cattle provides warmth above. Some part of the hut, or another, smaller, purpose-built one nearby (natural niches in the rock are also used) is set aside as a larder for keeping cheeses, butter and other foodstuffs 11. cool.

The recovery of traditional cheeses

Master-minded by Ismael Díaz Yubero, a Catálogo de quesos españoles (Catalogue of Spanish Cheeses) was published by Spain's Ministry of Agriculture in 1969. Díaz Yubero’s work was supplemented by research carried out by Enric Canut, a technical specialist and expert in cheese-making who, in the 1970s, started a project to assemble 30 types of traditionally made cheese for a book entitled Els formatges a Catalunya (Cheeses in Catalonia), written in Catalan and published in 1978. He subsequently continued his mission of rescuing the cheese-making traditions of the towns and villages of Spain from possible oblivion, publishing the results of his research in his books Manual de Quesos, Queseros y Quesómanos (Handbook of Cheeses, Cheese-makers and Cheese-lovers) published in 1990, and Los cien quesos españoles (Spain’s Hundred Cheeses) published in 1996.

In 1990, when Spain’s National Designations of Origin Institute (INDO) updated the original catalogue of cheeses, it recorded 81 different types according to provenance and production method, with a view to preserving the particular characteristics and quality of Spanish cheeses. Six years later, the inventory of traditional Spanish products included more than 90 types of cheese, and their number is still growing.


Enrique García Ballesteros, (BA in Early Modern and Modern History and MA in Communication and Journalism) is a Spanish historian, writer and journalist. He has published over a hundred scientific and general interest articles on history and the media in prestigious magazines such as Historia National Geographic and La Aventura de la Historia. He has also authored biographies, interviews and book reviews for major institutions and the Spanish press. He is a regular contributor to the Spanish national daily newspapers El Mundo and Público (now online version only).

Research coordination: María del Carmen Simón Palmer, has a phD in history and is a research professor at the Spanish National Research Council, CSIC. She is a member of the governing body of the Real Academia de Gastronomía. Her published works include: La cocina de Palacio (1591-1932), (Castalia, 1997) and Bibliografía de la Gastronomía y Alimentación en España, (Trea, 2003).

Translation: Hawys Pritchard, M.A. (University of London) is a freelance translator currently based in Wales and Mallorca. Her work has appeared in various books and magazines (including Spain Gourmetour) that reflect her interest in food, wine, travel, art and architecture.

Photo credits

First signs of cheese making in the Iberian Peninsula
Painting by Miguel Salvatierra Cuenca at the archeological site of Los Millares, in Almería, Spain representing the Neolithic settlement at its peak. Licensed under GNU & Creative Commons by José María Yuste.

Cheese consumption in Ancient Greece and Rome
Roman Terracotta cheese press from Balmuildy Roman fort in Scotland. 2nd C. Image courtesy of the VRoma Project.

Cheese and the three religious traditions in Spain
Symbols of the three monotheistic religions which have a cheese consumption tradition. Pablo Neustadt ©Icex.

Cheese in late medieval Spain: the Mesta
Cheese making. Tacuinum Sanitatis, ca.1400, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris, France.

Cheese in the Modern Era
Bodegón con plato de cerezas, ciruelas, jarra y queso. Still life with a plate full of cherries, plums, a jar and cheese. Luis Meléndez (1716-1780), Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain.