The Land of 400 Cheeses

January 2010

We've tasted so many great cheeses in our travels, and it is surprising Spain is not world famous for its incredible variety, boasting over 400 cheeses from every region. In fact, it seems that every valley and village in Spain has its own special cheese. Here are a few of our favorites.

From the sunny Balearic Island of Menorca comes Mahón, an aged cheese combining milk from three distinct breeds of cows. The rounded cheese is coated with mild paprika to produce its distinctive orange rind. When young, it has a creamy, slightly tart flavor is reminiscent of Dutch Gouda or Edam. The aged version has a firm, crumbly texture and almost nutty flavor.

On the northwest coast, milk from the cows of Celtic Galicia are made into traditional Tetilla, one of our most popular cheeses. It has a slightly scandalous shape and name, which is part of its appeal! Mild and creamy, this is one of Spain's most approachable cheeses.

High in the glorious coastal mountains of Cantabria artisans make the complex artisanal Cabrales -- the king of blue cheeses. The flavorful blue mold in this cheese evolves naturally from the walls of the caves where the cheeses are aged. To give you a sense of the heritage of this cheese, when we visited the area, we entered a humid Cabrales aging cave which turned out to be an ancient Roman mine! Cabrales is predominately made of cow's milk, although often blended with that of goat and sheep's milk according to a secret formula whose origin is lost in time. Spicy and intensely aromatic, this is a favorite of blue cheese aficionados. 

Sheep's milk is the source for the most popular cheeses of Spain, due the vast herds of sheep that thrive in the central plains of Spain. By far, the most famous cheese is Manchego, produced in La Mancha, the central meseta of Spain -- the land of windmills and Don Quixote. The local Manchega sheep roam the dry, open countryside, enjoying wild herbs and grasses that add a complexity of flavor to the final cheeses. 

A word of caution - there are many cheeses in the marketplace called 'Manchego,' just as there are many cheeses called 'cheddar.' Because of its popularity, most Manchego is industrially produced, using ultra-pasteurized milk. We work with small artisans, who often use raw milk from local herds, and the difference is amazing!

We also love Idiazábal, a smoked shepherd's cheese from the Basque Country. Most of the producers have small land holdings in the mountains - we visited one woman who lived in a comfortable house above the sheep pens! Idiazábal is nutty and has an enticing smokiness from hawthorn and cherry wood.

One of Spain's most surprising cheeses is the spoonable, brie-like cheese with a bold aromatic flavor, Torta del Casar. Legend has it that Torta del Casar cheese originated as a mistake by shepherds in Extremadura who were seeking to create a hard cheese. Using thistle rennet, some of their cheeses never fully solidified, so the cheesemakers kept them for themselves, but eventually the secret got out. Since then this special cheese has become world famous, and now has its own protected Denomination of Origin status.

We could go on to many other great cheeses, but there is nothing like tasting them for yourself. We have traveled the countryside of Spain, discovering our favorite cheeses and offering them here for you. We hope you enjoy the variety and flavor of these delicious cheeses.

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