Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Notes From a Fromager -- Los Quesos de Espana

More often than you would expect, people come into the store where I work, glance briefly at the hundreds of cheeses piled up around them, and then ask, wide-eyed and hopeful, “Do you have Manchego?” They always get excited when I say yes, sometimes clapping their hands and doing a little victory dance. But, really, is it much of a surprise that we sell Manchego, perhaps the most popular cheese after brie and cheddar? Come on, people, that’s like going to a bookstore and asking if they’ve heard of The Great Gatsby! Manchego, thanks in a large part to Spain’s push to publicize and export it, has been canonized.

Hailing from Don Quixote’s hometown of La Mancha, Manchego is a sheep’s milk cheese made from, that’s right, Manchego sheep. At my work, we sell a young and an aged version, the latter being much sharper and saltier than its younger counterpart, the texture a little bit flakier. I love lugging these wheels of cheese, which are covered in a braided wax that gets nice and greasy on the bottom. It’s just so cheesy.

If you’ve grown tired of Manchego, I suggest Zamorano, which resembles Manchego in appearance and texture, but is made from two different sheep breeds—Churra and Castellana. Zamorano is also unpasteurized, giving it a more complex flavor: buttery, nutty, sometimes even a little spicy.

Roncal is another spectacular raw sheep’s milk cheese. At the store last week we had an extra-dry wheel, which proved challenging to cut (it crumbled at the knife’s touch), but was also supremely tasty. Roncal comes from Lacha and Aragonesa sheep in the Navarra region of Spain, and it’s made year-round, the shepherds (or whatever they’re called nowadays) moving from one part of the Roncal valley to another, so that their herds can enjoy uninterrupted grazing. Roncal has a meatier flavor than either Manchego or Zamorano; it reminds me a little of Pecorino Romano, without the nose-flaring sharpness.

Pair these cheeses with Tempranillo wine, a few slices of Jamón Serrano, some membrillo (a.k.a. quince paste) and figs, and you’ve got yourself a fabulous Spanish cheese plate. ¿Valé?


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