guide to eating, buying and enjoying cheeses in spain

The Complete Guide to Spanish Cheeses

Spain Produces a Wide Variety of High Quality Cheeses

Mild-Flavored Cheeses

In general, cheeses with the lightest or mildest flavors are those that are soft and made from cow’s milk with a short curing time. These cheeses generally are not altered or fermented except for the process of lactic fermentation. They are best paired with young white wines, perhaps from the Galicia region. A few examples of mild-flavored Spanish cheeses are made in the region of Galicia, such as Tetilla cheese–a cone-shaped cheese with hints of herb and lemon that is soft and creamy–and Arzura Ulloa, a melt-in-your-mouth cheese that is more about the creamy texture than any significant flavors.

Medium-flavored cheeses are usually semi-cured and not as soft as the mild cheeses; they can be paired well with young red or rosé wines. A cow’s milk cheese, queso mahon comes from the Balearic Island of Minorca; this cheese is the second most popular after manchego. It is salty, spicy and has a nutty and fruity flavor. Butter, paprika, and oil are rubbed onto the exterior creating an orange rind. Ibores goat’s milk cheese from Extremadura is also a good example of medium-flavored Spanish cheese. It is a raw goat’s milk cheese that strengthens in flavor while it ages for two months, resulting in a hard, tangy, and salty cheese with an oil and paprika-rubbed rind.

Strong-Flavored Cheeses

Strong cheeses have the longest curing or aging process and are usually made from sheep’s milk or a mix. They are best when paired with red wines that have a full body. Four sheep’s milk cheeses–Manchego from Castilla-La Mancha, Roncal from Navarra, Zamorano from Castilla-Leon and Idiazabal from the Basque Country–are examples of strong cheeses. The most famous strongly-flavored cheese is probably a mixed milk blue cheese, such as Queso de Cabrales, produced in northern Spain and matured in limestone caves for two to five months. Cabrales’ strong flavor can be quite acidic, and when made with different kinds of milk is very complex.

How to tell Spanish Cheeses apart

You can divide Spanish cheeses (quesos) into three broad categories:

  • Queso fresco: Fresh cheese, without any curing or aging.
  • Queso semi-curado: A semi-cured cheese, aged for two or three months.
  • Queso curado: Cured cheese, with at least four months of aging in a cellar or cave.

Most Spaniards will mostly eat queso fresco and semi-curado, most of the time. These are your every-day cheeses, and every bar in Spain serves them as simple tapas and aperitifs. But it’s the third category, queso curado, where the real magic’s at. The most strongly flavored, most intense, and most expensive cheeses around, these cured curds are the stuff of legend, and tradition.

Protected cheeses, protected traditions

When Spain was in the process of joining the European Union it began introducing the “Denominación de Origen” to classify premium food products (much like that of the Spanish wine industry). Of the more than 100 Spanish cheeses currently in production 27 have been designated as “Denominación de Origen Protegida” (DOP) or “Indicaciones Geográficas Protegidas” (IGP) (Source: Gobierno de España). Each board regulates the geographical environment, the raw materials and products produced, and the human influence in the finished product. Finally, each product of a DO is labeled with the DO logo and a number, making each cheese a unique item.

History of Spanish Cheese

The Romans are recognized as developing cheese-making techniques and would have brought them to Spain during its colonization in the 2nd century BC. It is likely, on the other hand, that cheese was being produced in Spain even prior to their arrival. During the Middle Ages, cheese consumption was fairly widespread; in monasteries, the production of some of the best-known cheeses originated. Shepherds generalized cheese production as it was one of the most bountiful products available.

With this history, it may seem a bit surprising that Spanish cheese has not penetrated the world table as have those of France or Italy. Franco’s dictatorship (post-Spanish Civil War) outlawed the production of artisan cheeses as a snub to modernization and industrialization. Fortunately, as was true with wine-makers during prohibition in the US, many cheese-makers went underground and continued to create and perfect their craft. After Franco’s death in 1975, these artisans were able to come out of “hiding” and revive their traditions; and we are the better for it. Unfortunately, many cheeses disappeared completely as a result of Franco’s restrictions, but we have been left with a plethora of amazing ones from which to choose.

The best Spanish cheeses: 6 you need to try!

1. MANCHEGO

Manchego cheese in Consuegra, La Mancha

Manchego cheese in Consuegra, La Mancha

The Manchego cheese is produced in the La Mancha region of Spain, which is also home to Don Quixote. It is made from pasteurized sheep’s milk. It is one of the popular cheeses from Spain and comes under the PDO (DOP) guidelines. Its firm texture and inoffensively tangy, not-too-salty, not-too-sweet flavor make it the perfect accompaniment to most meals. The traditional use of grass molds leaves a distinctive, characteristic zigzag pattern on the Manchego cheese. Authentic Manchego is only made from the Manchega sheep’s milk. Manchego cheese is made from both pasteurized and unpasteurized milk. The farmhouse version is produced from unpasteurized milk while the industrial version is produced from pasteurized milk. The Corcuera Family was the first in all of Castilla La Mancha to make and commercialize Manchego Cheese. They produce the cheese in Toledo province.

Manchego cheese is available in many varieties depending on its age:

Fresco – fresh cheese aged for 2 weeks. The flavor is rich and mild; rarely available outside Spain.
Semi Curado – semi-firm cheese aged around 3 weeks to 3 months.  It is supple and moist. The flavor is fruity, grass, hay with a tangy note.
Curado – semi-firm cheese aged for 3-6 months. The flavor is caramel and nutty.
Viejo – firm cheese aged for 1-2 years. The flavor is sharp and it becomes crumbly in texture. It has a sweet, lingering taste.

Manchego cheeses are best paired with a dry Andalusian sherry!

2. CABRALES

Guide to Eating, Buying and Enjoying Cheese in Spain

Cabrales

Elaborated in the lush mountains of Asturias, in the north of Spain, the flavor of this acclaimed blue cheese is tied to the region’s landscape. The herds of cows, sheep, and goats, that produce the milk for Cabrales, feed in the high pastures of Asturias. This artisan cheese is not injected with bacteria, but instead it matures from the outside inward. The ripening process takes place in natural mountain limestone caves that are passed on from generation to generation—from which Cabrales receives its characteristic blue-green veining. Slightly granular, Cabrales is a semi-hard blue cheese, with 2-4 months of curing, has a spicy yet salty bite that pairs perfectly with a sweet sherry from the South of Spain.  The cheese is produced in limited amounts because it’s manufactured on small, family-run farms using only traditional methods. In fact, in 2018 one restaurant paid over €14,000 for just one wheel of it! This cheese is best paired with red wine, figs, and cured meat products.

3. TORTA DEL CASAR

Guide to Eating, Buying and Enjoying Cheese in Spain

Torta del Casar

Torta del Casar is a cheese made from raw, unpasteurized sheep’s milk in the districts of Los Llanos de Cáceres, Sierra de Fuentes and Montánchez in the province of Cáceres near the Portuguese border. It is named after Casar de Cáceres, its city of origin, and torta or atortao, referring to its shape; a rather irregular shape the cheese took on when the soft inside was unable to sustain its shape, reminding the people of Extremadura of a cake instead. This semi-liquid interior, strikingly similar to a cheese dip, is what makes this cheese so famous and delectable. Torta del Casar is a very rare delicacy since the Merino and Entrefina sheep, which are farmed in the traditional way, yield very low amounts of milk. This cheese, cured for at least 2 months, using a local thistle to curdle the milk. By using vegetable rennet (rennet is required to help separate the milk’s curds from the whey) made from thistles to coagulate the sheep’s milk, the producers achieve this highly creamy texture and signature taste. To enjoy the melt-in-your-mouth experience that is Torta del Casar, you must cut of the top of the soft rind so that you can scoop out the inside with pieces of bread. It is usually served with Jamon Serrano and white wine. Make sure that the cheese is at room temperature so that the aromas can unfold and the cheese becomes runny.

4. MAHÓN

The tiny Balearic island of Menorca is a culinary hothouse, the birthplace of mayonnaise (Mahon-aise) and the cultivating ground for Mahón cheese, whose salty sharp taste is reminiscent of the island’s briny coast. A cow’s milk cheese, Mahon undergoes a series of baths in olive oil and/or Pimentón, a spice similar to paprika. Like cheddar, the bright white cheese grows darker, sharper, and crumbles with age.  You can find three different stages of Mahon: soft, semi-cured, and cured. A soft Mahón has a barely developed white/orange rind and white to yellow creamy yet firm interior. The taste, while suave, still has the characteristic brine and a sharp tinge to it. In comparison the semi-cured Mahón’s rind is a brownish orange, the cheese an ivory yellow. With a more developed bouquet of flavors typical of Mahón, including notes of toasted nuts, the cheese still retains the milky notes of a younger Mahón . The cured Mahón , on the other hand, is a cheese made in cheese-lovers heaven. Powerful, evoking flavors of tobacco, leather, and spices, the aged cheese crumbles to the cut and lingers on the palate—especially paired with a strong honey. You can find Mahón made with either raw or pasteurised milk, but it’s the raw milk version that’s considered best. Called “Artisan Mahón“, this tasty stuff will be cured for at least 2 or 3 months. And the best of the best will have a mild flavour of the sea, carried all the way from the island of Menorca where it’s made.

Mahón is best served with a healthy drizzle of olive oil! Find out how to choose the best Spanish olive oils here.

5. TETILLA

Guide to Eating, Buying and Enjoying Cheese in Spain

Galicia tetilla cheese

Queso Tetilla is an aged semi-soft cheese made with the milk of FriesianSwiss Brown and Galician Blonde cows in the region of Galicia. This cheese, ripened for a minimum of 7 days, made from unpasteurized milk from a local breed of cow, has a typical pear-like shape with a pointed top, which is the reason why it’s called tetilla, meaning nipple in Spanish. The resulting cheese is mild, tender, and buttery—just like the Galicians who make it! Its flavor is distinctively mild and buttery, with aromas similar to those of vanilla and walnuts. Queso Tetilla is usually paired with jamón Serrano, chorizo, membrillo, and a glass of wine.

6. IDIAZÁBAL

Guide to Eating, Buying and Enjoying Cheese in Spain

Wheel of Idiazábal cheese from the Basque Country

Another cheese from the northern regions of Spain, Idiazábal is located on the other end of the flavor spectrum. Mild with a nutty presence, this firm cheese is produced in two varieties, smoked and plain. The smoked variety spends up to 10 days over fires of Cherry, Birchwood, or Hawthorne, from which it retains an ocher rind, compared to the buttery yellow tone of a plain Idiazábal.  Predominantly elaborated in the Basque country and Navarre region, Idiazábal was given its D.O.P. to protect the Latxa and Carranza sheep. These native species of the region only produce a small quantity of milk per year, resulting in a limited and exclusive supply of true Idiazábal. They are just sensational alongside big, bold red wines. If you’re ever in the Basque country, you can even walk the Idiazábal trail!

Guide to Eating, Buying and Enjoying Cheese in Spain

Map of the different cheeses in Spain

Tips for the Perfect Spanish Cheese Plate

Selecting cheeses and accompaniments for the perfect cheese plate is more of an art than a science.  There are a few rules of thumb, but with so many cheeses to choose from, the cheese plate is an expression of the person who puts the selection together. Cheeses generally fit into a few main categories: aged, soft, firm, and blue. Or you can select cheeses by type of milk used to make them: cow, sheep, goat, or a blend. Regardless of the cheeses you select, it is always a good idea to include one more familiar cheese, like Manchego, but your choices are bounded only by your creativity and of course availability.

About Audrey De Monte

Born in New York City, raised in Western Africa, I have studied, lived and worked on three continents (Africa, Europe and North America), and have traveled extensively throughout the world. Travel has shaped my life, who I am, how I look at the world and continues to be my biggest teacher. Together with my native Italian husband, we speak 5 languages. Western Europe is my backyard, in particular Spain, France, Germany, and Italy—countries where I have spent my life, since early childhood, visiting family, friends, studying, living and working.