I have many Spanish cheese favorites. Just as with cheeses from other parts of the world, what constitutes my “favorite” varies with my mood. That said, I love soft cheeses, so the Torta del Casar is always a favorite. It’s meaty, aromatic, and super complex. So too Monte Enebro – a creamy, ash-rinded, wide, flat log-shaped goat cheese with a hint of blue mold. I love the fluffy texture but also the surprising hint of blue mold flavor.
I also like Los Cameros, a firmer mixed-milk cheese that is buttery yet savory with a hint of caramel, as well as its sister cheese, Los Cameros Queso de Cabra, which is, of course, made from goat’s milk.
So too Garrotxa – another firmer goat cheese that is savory, satisfying and, as I learned, quite varied depending on the producer. I love Cabra Romero – a rosemary and Ibérico lard-coated goat’s milk cheese which, while semi-firm, becomes a bit creamy in the mouth. The flavor from the rosemary coating penetrates the entire cheese without overwhelming it to create what becomes a little like sautéed rosemary “jamon.” Nothing not to like! And I learned that not all Idiazabals taste alike. I absolutely loved the ones I tried in Spain, though I don’t know their specific source(s).
In your opinion, how are Spanish cheeses different from those from other countries, like the US, France, the Netherlands or Italy?
Just as with the cheeses from other countries, Spanish cheeses have their own points of view. The soft sheep’s milk cheeses tend to be thistle-rennet cheeses, which are very particular to the region in which they’re made.
Manchego is as iconic a cheese as there ever could be. But the milk from the La Mancha sheep, the way the cheese is made including the reed-patterned molds in which they are aged, the many styles in which it is made – raw, pasteurized, aged short and long – makes it uniquely Spanish.
In addition, Spanish cheesemakers are innovating in ways I’ve only seen American cheese makers and, more recently, Swiss cheesemakers, do. They are looking at their milk source, their terroir – i.e. what the land and weather provide – and are creating their own recipes accordingly.
I tasted a brick-shaped cow’s milk cheese called Panzaburro at Quesería Cultivo in Madrid that knocked my socks off. Part of the reason is that owner, Rubén Valbuena, started a program at his family’s queseria in which they bring in cheeses from cheesemakers when they’re only a few days old. They then mature them by introducing them to molds and beneficial bacteria that the cheesemakers themselves might not know how to do.
Cheese-aging is an art, which Rubén and those at his queseria (called Cantagrullas, which is so named for the gray cranes in the area) are proving. They rub the Panzaburro with very specific hard-to-get molds they literally transported from elsewhere and introduced them to their aging room. The result is a dusty rind with a variety of red, tan, white, and other molds that make the cheese as rustic and beautiful as it is incredibly buttery and flavorful.
Rubén has many other unique cheeses at Queseria Cultivo including his own creamery’s Braojos, a raw sheep’s milk cheese with a very complex, slightly crusty, edible, mushroomy rind and creaminess for days in the paste.
What is the current status of cheese from Spain in the overall cheese landscape in the US? What are the most well-known varieties? Would you say that US consumers are familiar with Spanish cheeses?