Manchego Cheese: All About It
Manchego, easily the most well-known Spanish cheese throughout the world, is beloved for its rich, buttery taste and compact consistency.
Manchego sheep’s cheese is usually made from pasteurized milk and needs to be matured for a minimum of 30 days to a maximum of 2 years. The milk of this Spanish cheese does not contain any medicinal products and every detail is taken care of during the production process of this product, which is why it is a Top quality Cheese. And the most important thing: it is delicious!
Manchego cheese is a type of cured cheese that, as its name suggests, is produced in a large area of the Castilla-La Mancha region from the milk of Manchega breed sheep. There are different brands and types of Manchego cheeses, some with nuts, or even artisan Manchego cheeses. Whatever the case, its quality has made it increasingly popular. In fact, this Iberian cheese has a Denomination of Origin (DOP) with a regulatory council responsible for its certification.
Almost 60% of Spanish cheese with Denomination of Origin is Manchego, which makes it the main reference of Spanish cheese. As most of its production is exported, it is one of the most important ambassadors of Spain’s national gastronomy. La Mancha exported 5.9 million kg of this cheese in 2017, according to the Foundation for Manchego Cheese (Fundación C.R.D.O Queso Manchego).
1. The three varieties of Manchego cheese
Manchego cheese is made from Manchega sheep’s milk and must be aged for a minimum of 30 days for cheeses made from pasteurized milk weighing 1.5 kgs or less, and 60 days for all other formats. In this case, it should not be forgotten that it can be matured for a maximum of 2 years.
The ripening time is the phase that determines the age of cheese. It belongs to the last phase of the production process and is key in determining the flavors and aromas. Ripening is the stage where the cheese rests at the right temperature and conditions until it is ready to be consumed.
The ripening of the cheese influences above all the texture, flavor, and smell. Therefore, the more mature the cheese ripens, the more pungent the flavor and the more intense the smell, and the harder and drier the texture, due to the loss of water. Knowing why ripening is important in cheese, these are the 3 types of Manchego cheese that are known:
a) Cured Manchego Cheese
It is aged between 6 and 9 months. This ripening time gives the cheese a pronounced smell and flavor, leaving a taste of soft flavors with notes of caramel and nuts. But don’t let the word curado confuse you – manchego curado is only halfway cured. It is nearly solid in consistency but does crumble into smaller pieces, and it has a mild, nutty flavour. It does not however, lose its buttery feel and smooth creaminess.
b) Semi-cured Manchego Cheese
It is aged from 1 to 3 months depending on its size. It is characterized by an elastic texture, with a cream-colored paste. As for the aroma, it is lactic and each serving contains a flavor of hay, grass, and fruit with a sweet touch. Semi-cured Manchego cheese is the least cured of these three varieties.
c) Old Manchego Cheese
Old cheeses must mature for a period of more than 9 months in natural caves (the maximum being two years). Old Manchego cheese has a brittle texture with a deepened flavor and intensified nutty zest, that lingers longer in the mouth. One of its peculiarities is that the inside of the cheese has a caramel color.
At that point, the cheese is fully cured and thus has solid consistency, but it remains remarkably crumbly.
2. Manchego cheese roots
Manchego takes its name from the dry plateau of La Mancha in Castilla-La Mancha region roughly in the center of Spain, south of Madrid and not far from Toledo.
Baptized by the Arabs, Al Mansha (land without water), La Mancha is a vast, dry flat region with few trees, scorched by temperatures of up to 50º C) and minimal rainfall. It is a magnificent part of Spain with a sense of timelessness and history, dotted with old ruins, scrawny sheep, and the windmills made famous by Don Quixote
Archaeologists have found evidence that dates cheese-making in the La Mancha region to as far back as the Bronze Age. At that time, cheese-makers used milk from sheep that are the ancestors of today’s Manchego sheep, and pressed the curd in esparto grass baskets. Nowadays, the curd is pressed in cylindrical moulds.
Today, Manchego cheese must be made in the La Mancha region with whole Manchega sheep milk and aged for at least two months in the area’s natural caves to be classified with the official Spanish Appellation of Origin (DOP, which stands for Denominación de Origen Protegida), which was awarded in 1984.
That is why, in order to identify the authentic Manchego cheese, the commercial label must include the term “Manchego cheese”.
3. Manchega breed sheep
Manchego cheese is made exclusively from the milk of the Manchega sheep. This is a breed that has maintained its purity and original qualities, which have hardly changed over the centuries.
Manchega sheep are grazed all year round, taking advantage of the natural resources of the La Mancha area, although their diet is supported with rations of concentrates and other by-products during periods of greater nutritional requirements (gestation, lactation, etc.). They are grouped in flocks of between 100 and 600 heads, depending on the size of the farm, although flocks of up to 2,000 animals can be found.
There are two varieties of Manchega sheep, according to their coat: a white one, with depigmented mucous membranes, which is the most numerous, and a black one, with light spots on the head and distal parts of their anatomy. The variety, however, does not establish quality differences in the milk they produce.
4. How Manchego cheese looks like
This cylindrical-shaped semi-hard cheese is identified by its distinctive herringbone rind.
The exterior has a distinctive yellow to brownish beige rind, which gathers a multitude of molds that must be washed and scrubbed and sometimes waxed before being sold.
To qualify for the Appellation of Origin DOP label, the cheese must bear the distinct zigzag markings along the sides and the flor, “flower,” design on the top and bottom. Originally, the zigzag marks were made by encircling the fresh curd with plaited esparto grass and placing it on hand-carved wooden boards to drain. Sadly, the boards and grass have been replaced with plastic molds, imprinted with the zigzag pattern.
The interior is ivory-colored with a firm and dry texture, yet rich and creamy. Manchego cheese has sometimes a kind of small eyes unevenly distributed.
The Manchego cheese can have a maximum height of 12 cm and a maximum diameter of 22 cm. It will weigh a minimum of 0.4 kg and a maximum of 4 kg.
With flavors sharpening with age, so does the texture. Past the inedible rind, the ivory-colored body crystallizes as the season pass, going from open to granular and flaky in the span of a year. Tiny pores lace the interior, adding to the granular texture as it ages. As the consistency hardens, the flavors deepen, becoming more rounded and toasty in their nuances. Paired with honey, almonds, or marmalade.
5. Can the Manchego rind be eaten?
Yes, but NO. The rind is edible, as is the casein plaque that identifies the cheese. But it is in contact with many elements that do not make it advisable to eat it. Moreover, the difference in texture with the rest of the cheese causes an unpleasant sensation when chewing it.
6. Tasting notes of Manchego cheese
The depth and complexity of flavor depend on age, but all Manchego has an unmistakable richness reminiscent of Brazil nuts and caramel, with a distinct aroma of lanolin and roast lamb, and a slightly salty finish. The texture is dry yet creamy. It can be slightly oily on the surface and may feel a little greasy in the mouth, but that just makes it taste better. Each mouthful is a taste of Spanish culture, history, and gastronomy.
Symphonic strokes of fruits and nuts resonate in clear unison along with zesty undertones of piquancy. Induced by the woven mould of grass, unique to Manchego, aromas of dried herbs marinate the interior in vivid contrasts.
Cheeses that reach a great age have a peppery bite to the finish and, if cut into thin wedges and marinated in the strong aromatic local green olive oil, the flavor is intensified.
7. How to enjoy Manchego cheese
Like all hard cheeses, Manchego keeps well and is gorgeous eaten just as it is; however, like any hard cheese, it is extremely versatile and, when cooked, lends a nutty, sweetness to the dish.
It is usual to accompany the cheese with some bread, or pairing it with a plate of acorn-fed ham. With a glass of red wine or beer, it forms the perfect tandem. With little curing, accompanied by quince jelly, it becomes an exquisite dessert. Some people prefer to season it with honey or preserve it in oil and the most daring risk includes it in pizzas, pasta dishes, risottos, or cheesecakes.
Thanks to its irresistible taste and versatility, there are many recipes with Manchego cheese, but we recommend these so that you can enjoy Manchego as it is:
a) By itself with bread and olive oil.
b) In a Salad: The Italians have the mozzarella to prepare the Caprese salad, but Spaniards have nothing to envy them. If you prepare a few sliced ones with Manchego, olive oil, and oregano, everything will be perfect.
c) With Pasta: Grated cheese is usually very common at the end of all kinds of pasta dishes, but stuffed pasta also allows this ingredient to be integrated directly into the preparation. If you are going to make your own ravioli, we recommend that you fill them with a little Manchego. Once you have them ready, cook them and accompany them with tomato and nut-based sauce that will intensify their flavor.
d) On Skewers: The Manchego cheese banderillas (skewers) are an exquisite choice for canapés, for tapas, for an original dinner.
e) With Pizza: One of the best pizzas there is, without a doubt, the four cheeses. Or by itself with mushrooms, vegetables, or other tasty items. If you prepare it with a good quality Manchego, you will enjoy it even more!
f) With wine, Manchego will absorb tannin, so enjoy it with a robust or young rough red, crisp white, or perhaps the best combination is with sherry, either dry or sweet.
8. How to cut Manchego cheese
The cut of manchego cheese should be clean so that the surface does not present irregularities, which improves its conservation and aesthetics.
Special double-handled knives make it easier to cut the manchego cheese into two halves, but in the case of using an ordinary knife you should make sure that the length of its blade easily reaches the center of the manchego cheese to facilitate the task.
The ideal knife is a single-edged knife with a rounded tip.
Unlike brie or feta cheese, its cutting requires a little more precision as it is a type of cheese with a hard rind and a firm and compact paste.
It is advisable not to cut more than the amount that is going to be consumed to avoid the possibility of the cheese becoming dry. In addition, it is highly recommended to put the knife in hot water before starting to cut it. Once wet, dry the knife with a dry cloth and it will be ready for the cutting procedure. It is important not to skip this step to avoid cutting the cheese when it is cold and prevent it from cracking.
The cut will be angular with vertex in the geometric center of the piece, cutting no more than the amount to be consumed and then dividing it into thin slices of about 3 to 5 mm thick, the geometric shape of these slices will be triangles.
Already cut cheeses
It is very likely that when you buy a Manchego cheese it is already pre-cut into pieces. In this case, you should look inside the cheese and pay attention to the color and the paste. Depending on its maturation, the inside of the cheese can range from white to ivory and the paste should be compact and homogeneous.
9. How best to store Manchego cheese
In general, the ideal condition for storing manchego cheese should be at a temperature between 5-10º C and at 85-90% humidity. In addition, it is important to remember whether our cheese comes in pieces, if we have bought a whole piece or if we want to mature it in oil. For each of these cases, we must take into account these tips.
a) The whole piece
If you are a cheese lover, you are probably fond of buying a whole piece of Manchego cheese to eat with your family or when you invite friends over for dinner. A whole piece of Manchego cheese can be stored well in the bottom of the refrigerator or even in the drawers underneath specifically for storing fruit and vegetables. The shelf life of the cheese will last several months if stored in this part of the refrigerator. As long as it is vacuum-packed and the piece is not uncooked.
If you have not been able to resist and you have opened your cheese, store it in this part of the refrigerator protected and covered with waxed or waxed paper or also in plastic wrap. You can also cover it with aluminum foil. In this case, it would be enough to cover only the cut area since the rind of the cheese needs to be aired. Storing it in a cheese container in the refrigerator will prevent oxygen from coming into contact with the cheese.
The cheese should be moved every 8 to 10 days, that is, we should turn it upside down to keep it in good condition. This is our little tip.
b) In wedges
It is very common to have cheese in wedges at home. Above all, for convenience when cutting it and so as not to spoil more cheese than we can really eat. To keep manchego cheese in small pieces, we should choose to store it in an airtight container or in a dish covered with a damp cloth. You already know that you can cover it with aluminum foil if you are going to eat it in a few days.
Do not store your portion of cheese in the pantry because it does not have the right temperature and humidity conditions.
c) In oil
Ripening in oil is one of the most commonly used techniques. Have a glass, stainless steel or earthenware jar or container ready and place your cheese divided into quarters or small pieces in that container. Putting it in this type of container will prevent odors and flavors from being transferred. Cover it with extra virgin olive oil and store it in a cool environment that does not exceed 10º C. Do not forget to close the jar tightly to keep it in the best conditions!
In order for it to acquire the sensory properties contained in olive oil, it is necessary to wait one or two months from its immersion in this liquid until its consumption. So, you will have time to eat the cheese without any hurry.
If some mold appears in your cheese -both in the whole piece and in the wedge- do not worry and much less, throw the cheese away. The appearance of these organisms is normal. Just cut off the part where the mold has appeared and enjoy eating the rest of the cheese.
10. How Manchego cheese is made
Flowing from large containers, cool milk is poured into heated vats, being added culture and rennet as it is stirred. This triggers the coagulation of the sheep’s milk, producing a firm curd. It is then cut and separated for it to strain off excess whey. Once drained, the broken curd is stowed into their moulds.
Artisan cheeses typically use traditionally grass-woven moulds, whereas industrial versions use ones of plastic. The curd is then compressed in their moulds, fully draining them of any remaining whey. Before being deemed ready for aging, the cheese is soaked in brine, a mixture of water and salt. Set to age, the cheese is brushed in olive oil, locking in moisture and flavor, while still allowing it to breathe.
Fresh Manchego is aged for a minimum of only 2 weeks, while some spend more than a year maturing.