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A Good Mouthful…of Cheese

Archive for the tag “sheep”

More than Manchego: Otros Quesos de Espana

Hold up — is it really 80 degrees and sunny here in San Francisco? It is…and it has been for the past few days. What? Suddenly it feels like we skipped right over spring and in to high summer, and all this direct heat is making me…groggy. Seriously, I’m nearly asleep on my feet, dazed, and I’m daydreaming of Spain. Have I ever been there? No, which makes it that much easier to imagine it as romantically as possible, all sunshine, siestas, sangria and, por supuesto, queso.*

When I say that, I bet you think of Manchego, no? Not I. While the sheep’s milk wheel from La Mancha might be even more well known than Don Quixote, I’m not sure it has quite as much to offer. Don’t get me wrong: Spain’s most popular cheese is a great and simple staple, one which is particularly good at complementing and enhancing the flavors of its accompaniments. But Spain is a big place — covering an area of over 195,000 square miles — with a cheesemaking history that dates back to the second century. As such, it’s safe to assume that the Spanish have a slightly larger selection to offer. So, when looking for a slice of Espana, try some of these instead.

Mahon Reserva – Raw Cow’s Milk from Minorca, Spain

Mahon Reserva

This Spanish cow’s milk cheese is almost as popular as Manchego and only slightly stronger in flavor. If you want to branch out, but not go too far, Mahon is the cheese for you. Is it fairly mild? Yes. Is it also beautiful and delicious? Yes and Yes. Hailing from the island of Minorca, a jewel of the Mediterranean, how could it be anything but? Seriously, look at this photo. This is a cheese that is made in paradise.

I just stared at this picture for 20 minutes.

I just stared at this picture for 20 minutes.

Mahon is the capital and port of Minorca and, as you may have surmised, also the name of the island’s most famous export. All of the cow’s milk cheeses produced on the island are actually called Mahon, all of which are built tough to withstand long-term storage and transportation by sea. This reminds me of Madeira, the second most delicious beverage in the world (after Dr. Pepper, of course), but that’s subject matter for a different post.  On Minorca, the dairy industry is second only to the tourism industry, and the final product is undoubtedly a result of the local terroir (or whatever that word is in Spanish). The island has a mild climate and gets lots of rainfall which, in combination with sea winds and humidity, give the milk — and later the cheese — high acidity and saltiness.

The Mahon most common here in the states is Mahon Reserva, a firm, square, orange block. To protect the cheese, the rind is rubbed with paprika and oil, then aged for 10 to 12 months. The spicy bite of the paprika certainly makes its way into the taste the of the cheese, preparing the palate  for what’s to come. With a dense, hard texture that breaks down almost instantly when popped in your mouth, Mahon Reserva is all slowly unfolding and lingering flavor. Equal parts sweet and sharp, this cheese is beautifully balanced and consistently good. I sometimes get a smoky, caramel flavor (almost like a muted aged Gouda), but I’m most partial to the wheels that read as a little bit sour. Every now and then, a bite will remind me of my favorite cocktail, an Old Fashioned, bursting with the taste of bourbon and bitter orange peel, and I instantly get a little buzz.

Ombra – Pasteurized Sheep’s Milk from Catalonia, Spain

Ombra

Oh Ombra, one of my favorite cheeses to share with customers. Not only does this cheese bring me joy by reminding me of Joey’s duel with the Hombre Cowboy on Friends but, when sampled, it can always be trusted to sell itself. It’s that good. As fellow cheese blogger Kirstin Jackson says, Ombra is a cheese “that helps to explain why people fall in love with sheep’s milk.” Like many ewe-phoric delights (get it?), Ombra is at once both mild and full-flavored, with a firm texture that melts beautifully in your mouth. Much like Pringles, once you start popping Ombra, you just can’t stop.

Produced in the Catalonia region of Spain — right next to some other makers of lovely cheese, The French — Ombra is aged for 6-8 months, resulting in a cheese that is firm but still soft, dense but still porous, sweet and buttery, yet sharp like dry grass. I prefer the more aged rounds, when the paste gets really firm and flaky, chunking off the wheel in shards that remind me of pale stained glass. These old wheels are peppered throughout with crunchy tyrosine crystals, giving the illusion that there are actual nuts hidden in this nutty-tasting treat. I dream of Ombra paired with a spicy red wine and some hearty, crunchy, fruit & nut crostini.

Oh, and did I mention that it tastes like chocolate? Nutty, sharp, grassy, sheepy, melty chocolate. Like I said, it sells itself.

Veigadarte -Pasteurized Goat’s Milk from Castilla-Leon, Spain

Veigadarte

Veigadarte: Hard to pronounce (say vague-uh-dart-ay), easy to eat. This is a relatively new cheese in my life, but it has made a very strong first impression. Anyone who has recently come in to the shop looking for a soft goat cheese — especially those particular enough to ask for a French Bucheron — has been met with a sample of Veigadarte. And you know what? They leave with some, too. Every. Single. Time. It’s so delicious, I think I sample it out frequently just so I can sneak a taste, as well.

Hacemos queso muy delicioso!

Nosotros hacemos queso muy delicioso!

Made from the fatty milk of Spain’s scrappy Murciano-Granadina goats, Veigadarte is a goat cheese log on butterfat steroids. Cheesemaker Joaquin Villanueva Casado, who operates in the small and picturesque town of Ambasmestas, dusts each 1-pound log with vegetable ash then allows an edible, bloomy rind to form while the cheese ages for one month. The bloomy rind on Veigadarte helps to create this cheese’s treasured texture: Because it ripens from the outside in, the layer of cheese directly under the rind becomes extra ripe and creamy (and a little bit beige), while the inner paste remains bone white, fluffy, and freshly tangy. When tasting Veigadarte, really let it sit and form a paste in your mouth. The smooth texture is divine, but the flavor is even better. I taste salt (my favorite!), garlic, peppery greens, fresh lemon juice, and a delightful dash of beety dirt.

It’s been many years since I enjoyed a good salami sandwich (there’s no soy product that quite compares, is there?), but I imagine a thick smear of Veigadarte would pair insanely well with the fat peppery taste of that particular meat. However, veggies like me can let the cheese wow on it’s own: Spread on some bread with a side of salty, oily Marcona almonds, tart fresh berries, and a glass of fruity, floral, white wine (think Riesling, Viognier, or Albarino). I may have to treat myself to this very feast later tonight. It is the weekend, after all.

Torta de Trujillo (Mini) – Raw Sheep’s Milk from Extremadura, Spain

Torta de Trujillo

Torta de Trujillo reminds me of that scene in There’s Something About Mary where, just before being violently attacked, Ben Stiller coos to Mary’s terrier, “Are you the little guy making all that big noise?”  Not that this cheese will attempt to kill you, by any means, but it packs a serious punch for something that looks so cute and perfectly packaged.

The makers of this petite powerhouse are Finca Pascualete, a cheesemaking operation in the Extremadura region of Spain. I don’t know much about this area, other than the fact that it sounds magical and it looks even more magical than it sounds.

We interrupt this broadcast to share a mindblowingly beautiful image from Extremadura, Spain.

We interrupt this broadcast to share a mindblowingly beautiful image from Extremadura, Spain.

Back to it: Just like the lovely gentlemen at Quattro Portoni, the team at Finca Pascualete are focused on honoring traditional cheesemaking practices while, at the same time, creating new and marketable cheeses. A big part of their strategy is the use of thistle (i.e. cardoon) rennet as a coagulant (as opposed to an animal-based or microbial rennet), which is a time-honored tradition in Iberian cheesemaking.

This little Torta is a washed-rind  squishy puck of 2-month old sheep’s milk. While the cheese is covered in a slightly sandpaper-y and sticky orange rind, the pale pink paste contained within is silky, unctuous, and so creamy that it’s basically a liquid. The idea is to cut the top rind off , let it get to room temperature, and then dip in to the sweet, wooly, funky goop within. This is strong cheese, but it’s not  harsh or offensive. Where other washed rind cheeses can bring salt and bitterness to the table, Torta de Trujillo is completely round (i.e. not sharp) in flavor: the yeastyness of fresh baked bread, the sweet & savory comfort of Honeybaked Ham (again, if I’m remembering correctly), and the cozy Nutella-meets-wool-sweater taste of all good sheep’s milk cheeses. If there’s a heaven, I’m pretty sure it’s full of Nutella and wool sweaters.

Want more? Here are some that I didn’t have the space to include:

  • Valdeon – A noble goat’s milk blue. 
  • Roncal – The gamey Basque alternative to Manchego.
  • Montcabrer – An earthy, mild, and messy charcoal-washed goat.
  • Tetilla – A mild and zingy cow’s milk cheese, named for it’s likeness to “a small breast.”

*I’m really getting a kick out of revisiting high school Spanish right now. Lo siento.

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No Fault in San Andreas

“Go West. Paradise is there. You’ll have all that you can eat, milk and honey over there.”

As a cheesemonger-in-training, part of my job at Cowgirl Creamery is to familiarize myself with cheese. Cheese in general and, in particular, the cheeses that we sell. To do this, I look, feel, listen (to coworkers & customers…I’m not yet doing any direct cheese whispering), and taste. Taste, taste, taste. On my own, with the other cheesemongers, and with the people to whom I’m selling. The best way to talk to a customer about what they’re trying is to try it right there with them. And the way to sell what’s best is to know what’s best — for any and every occasion. While I have a list of favorites about a mile long (we sell a lot of cheeses!), the current apple of my eye is a native Californian — just like me!

Bellwether Farms San Andreas (Raw Sheep’s Milk from Valley Ford, CA)

One bite of San Andreas puts a song in my heart…and one in my head! I don’t think my love of this cheese is entirely due to the fact that it reminds me of a favorite Natalie Merchant song, but it doesn’t hurt.

Seriously though, this cheese stands on its own. Bellwether Farms makes a number of great cheeses (check out their lovely website), many of which we sell at the shop. Family owned & operated by the Callahan family, this mostly-sheep farm is located in picturesque Sonoma County, a few short miles from the tang & fog of the Pacific Ocean. The sheep at Bellwether Farm are mostly East Friesian Ewes, the most Lambchop-looking cuties that you’ve ever seen. The ewes graze freely year round (yay! run free!) and, in addition, are given grain and alfalfa as necessary.

Just standing around, being cute.

This might seem like a lot of sheep-related info, but it’s not for nothing. I firmly believe that good cheese comes from good milk and, as you may have heard, good milk comes from happy cows — or sheep (in this case), goats, and water buffalo. What the sheep eat will also come through in the taste of the cheese, so knowing about their dietary habits can shed some light when it comes to talking about flavor. Let’s do that!

San Andreas is made from raw milk. Though it’s made in the style of a Tuscan Pecorino, it’s a true Bellwether original. The interior paste is smooth, pale and straw-like in color, and dotted with some nice eyes (little holes) throughout. And that taste! The flavors of this cheese are rich and, like any good and oily sheep’s milk cheese, they linger in your mouth. I get notes of butterscotch, lots of nuts, and some hay — or maybe that’s alfalfa! — with a delightfully sour finish. This is a semi-firm cheese, but with enough moisture that it really melts in your mouth. A little bite goes a long way.

San Andreas might be named for the famous California fault line that runs past the Bellwether property, but I can’t find any fault with this cheese. I’m recommending it to all of my customers!

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