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A Good Mouthful…of Cheese

Archive for the tag “Spain”

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.

Bought Right at Bi-Rite

I bet nobody’s ever said that before, right?

Moving on: Early last week I attended another delightful class at The Cheese School, Old World vs. New World with Juliana Uruburu. I’ll write more about that later (there is so much to say!), but one of the highlights of the class was my introduction to an incredible ‘New World’ Parmesan, Sartori SarVecchio. As soon as I had a taste of this cheese, I knew that I wanted more! But…that’s not quite where this post is going. The following evening I was riding the 33 bus back home from my pilates class in the Inner Richmond and, not having had any dinner, I was growing quite hungry.  I fondly recalled the taste of SarVecchio and remembered Juliana telling the class that many long-distance runners and cyclists carry a hunk of parmesan or other hard, protein-packed cheese in their pocket for an on-the-go energizing snack. Now, I’m no long-distance runner or cyclist, but anyone familiar with the 33 bus knows that it can be just as trying. Anyone familiar with the 33 bus also knows that it goes right past Bi-Rite Market on my way home, and these facts all resulted in me getting off the bus two stops early in search of some SarVecchio!

Well…Bi-Rite didn’t have any SarVecchio. So, I went home empty-handed. Pshaw! No way. Bi-Rite did have some impressive looking Parms, but I figured that since I had covered that territory in class the night before (again, more to come on that soon), I should strike out in search of something new. I had something my heart set on something hard and salty, and one of Bi-Rite’s friendly cheese specialists suggested Spanish Roncal. A name-controlled classic that I’d never tried? Sold! Of course, once I’d spent about 5 seconds in the cheese section I just knew I’d have to go home with a few treats, so I let this same lovely lady give me two more recommendations, and I went home with the Roncal, a Dutch Remeker, and an Italian Toma Della Rocca — around the world, and only two blocks from home!

Roncal – Raw Sheep’s Milk from Valle de Roncal, Navarra, Spain


 

This traditional Spanish cheese is produced in the Navarra province from the milk of Latxa and Aragonesa breeds of sheep. Roncal gets it’s name from the Roncal Valley in the Pyrenees mountains, which is home to seven villages that work cooperatively to make the cheese. Roncal is an uncooked, pressed, natural rind cheese, aged between 4 and 8 months. The aging process creates a cheeses with firm beige or  brown rinds that are sometimes covered with spots of gray mold. The paste is light yellow and has small holes and the appearance of little cracks. When cut and allowed to stand for a bit, the cheese can start to look sweaty. This isn’t bad, though! It’s a sign of the butterfat weeping out, which indicates the richness of the cheese (George Harrison should have written about that)! How does it taste? Great! I had what I’m assuming was a younger Roncal. It had a decent amount of moisture (which I’m into) with a somewhat nutty but more citrus & olive-y flavor. As the cheese ages, it gets drier, darker, and that nutty flavor will get meatier. Maybe if I had let mine sit around for awhile I’d experience some of that, but polished it off pretty quickly for lunch the next day. Yum!

 

Remeker – Raw Cow’s Milk from Lunteren, Holland

It was decidedly easy to eat this delicious cheese, but I had a hell of a time trying to learn about it! I’ve got some stuff, but my resources were limited AND questionable, so take all of this information with a grain of salt. According to my research, Remeker cheese is made in Lunteren, Holland by the Van de Voort family, using raw Jersey cow’s milk. The cheese is sold at two ages — Young and Old. The more aged cheese is Old Remeker and the younger is just…Remeker. Or, at least, that’s what it said on the label of the one I purchased! The (Young) Remeker is aged for 6 months, while Old Remeker is aged for 16 months! I can’t speak to the taste of  Old Remeker (which I’ve read is ‘deep and complex’), but the Remeker we had (Mike had his fair share) was a delight! Dense & moist for a firm cheese, it was rich and creamy with some nice hints of fruit and hay. With the Remeker, I was again confronted by a cheese that I would describe as ‘fudge-y’, which is just…lots of fun!

 

Toma della Rocca – Pasteurized Cow, Sheep, and Goat’s Milk from Piedmont, Italy

Oh, Toma della Rocca. Just one taste of this bad boy and I was ready to run away to Italy forever. He might look all nice and neat in this portrait, but once you get your hands on him it gets messy real fast. Even this picture doesn’t do him justice (I don’t know why I’ve turned this cheese into a man — very weird, me), but this experience is worth the mess!  Toma della Rocca hails from the Alta Langa region of  Italy (right on the border of Piedmont & Lombardy), where soft mixed-milk cheeses are the norm. The cheese is ripened for about 10 days, and tastes and acts more like a goat’s milk than a mixed-milk cheese (based on my experience, at least). It has a nice bit of salt & runniness under it’s thin Geotrichum rind (that’s the brainy kind), but the majority of the paste is thick, chalky, and slightly sour. Because of the goat’s milk, you get a lot of tang and lemony flavor, but the cow’s milk contributes a lot in terms of thickness and a hint of sour cream. The sheep’s milk? That just makes the flavor linger in your mouth, which was a-okay by me. I enjoyed this cheese for a few days in various ways, but my favorite was actually as a breakfast to-go. One day I went to the gym before work (which, wow, never happens) and by the time I was heading out the door I was both running late and very hungry. I sliced off a thick piece of sweet batard, grabbed some Toma della Rocca from the fridge, slapped it together, and walked out the door. And it was amazing! Because the cheese was so cold, it was very firm and the tang was really pronounced. Paired with the sweetness and density of the bread, it was just an amazing (and amazingly filling) treat. I felt like I was eating a very classy version of a bagel and cream cheese!

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