Manchego cheese: An introduction
Manchego is a Spanish cheese made with milk from the ‘Manchega’ breed of ewe; it is produced in the region of Castile La Mancha (a large part of the provinces of Albacete, Ciudad Real, Cuenca and Toledo.)
The rind is a yellow/brown colour, the pate can be white to ivory yellow, and it has aromas of ewe’s milk, with a slight piquant and salty flavours. This cheese is one of the most well known and most exported Spanish cheeses. In Spain they eat the cheese with quince.
The ‘queso Manchego’(as it’s known in Spanish) is the result of a hard and extreme climate which favours the growth of rustic vegetation, which serves as the diet of the curious, ancestral breed of ewe, which are strictly controlled for morphological and sanitary reasons. These characteristics make for a unique cheese. It is thought that is has been attempted to make this cheese elsewhere, in France and other countries, but it was impossible to reproduce, due to the ancestral methods and the characteristics of the Castile La Mancha terrain.
How to choose a Manchego
This cheese has a pressed pate, which is firm and compact, with unevenly spread small holes. It is cylinder shaped with flat faces. The rind is hard and yellow, with marks made by the mould. The colour of the pate can vary, from white to yellowy ivory.
Manchego ‘fresco’: slightly acidic flavour, that of fresh ewe’s milk cheese.
Manchego ‘tierno’: still has the same characteristics of freshness.
Manchego ‘curado’: 3 months and more. Pronounced flavour, long lasting flavour.
Manchego ‘viejo’: Flavour is slightly milder, but texture is often very hard. Some people conserve it in jars of olive oil, which is called ‘Manchego en aceite.’
The first thing known about this cheese is that it was produced and consumed a number of centuries BC. Although it is not known how the cheese was made by the ancient ancestors, it can be said that the taste was probably very similar to the cheese eaten today, and that the methods of production were, without a doubt, similar to those used today.
Archaeological remains from the Bronze Age prove that in the region known today as La Mancha, there was a cheese made with ewe’s milk from a breed of ewe which can be considered as the ancestor of the current breed of ewe native to La Mancha. This breed has survived century after century, and is named after the terrain it inhabits.
La Mancha was named by the Arabs as ‘Al Mansha,’ which meant ‘land without water,’ a name which perfectly described the harshness of the climate. The dry, extreme climate is a unique area, in that the vegetation that grows is able to support the extreme heat of the summer and the devastating cold of the winter. It is in this environment that types of vegetation grow, which form the diet of the La Mancha ewes, which have been adapted to this ecosystem since the mists of time.
The history of Manchego can not be told without mentioning the famous work ‘Don Quixote’ by the writer Miguel Cervantes. This book is, without a doubt, one of the reasons that Manchego cheese is so gastronomically important, and popular.
It is important to underline the fact that under military orders, there a number of territories which make up La Mancha, which permits the easy development of the ewes, with the help of the ‘Conseil de la Mesta’ (an association of breeders of transhumance herds which was started in the Middle-Ages.The Manchega breed of ewe, descending from the Jewish Bet-El breed, is kept throughout the whole of this region. The Manchega breed has also produced other breeds which go to compose the large range of Spanish ewe breeds, such as the Segurena, the Alcarrena and the Talaverana. Their habitat is the vast pastures of the La Mancha region because these areas have the optimal conditions for the production of a top quality milk.
There are two types of ewe from La Mancha; one has a white coat with no pigmentation of the mucus membranes- this is the more common type- and the other type has a black coat with light coloured marks on the head. However, there is no difference in the quality of the milk the two types produce.
PDO since 1984
Milking and the chilling of the milk
The ewes are milked either by hand or mechanically. The milk is then filtered, placed in refrigerated tanks and then cooled to 4°C.
Curdling and curd cutting
The milk is moved into copper vats, where it is curdled using natural rennet or other coagulating enzymes. For this process the milk is heated to 30 ºC and kept at this temperature for 45 minutes. The curd is then cut over and over again, until the individual curds are the size of rice grains.
Removing the whey
The cheese mass is stirred and slowly reheated to 37 ºC, to help eliminate the liquid, or whey.
Putting into moulds
The curd is put into cylindrical molds with a relief on the inside which imprints the wheat ear “flower” on the top and bottom of the cheese and the zigzag braid along the sides.
Identification of the cheese using a casein badge
During this operation the casein tab, with its serial number, is attached to identify each individual cheese
Once the curd is in the molds, it is pressed to help eliminate the whey from the inside of the cheese mass.
Turning of the cheeses
After some time in the press, the curd is extracted from the mold (it will be a cylindrical block by this time), turned over, and put back into the mold to be pressed again.
The next step is the salting of the cheeses, by immersing them in sodium chloride for 24 to 48 hours.
Drying and ageing
The cheeses are placed in rooms which have a certain degree of humidity, to eliminate the excess water. They are then placed in a cheese cellar where the temperature and humidity are controlled to ensure that the cheeses ripen correctly.