No quest for cheese of La Mancha
Maricel E. Presilla
Spain produces scores of fascinating cheeses, but ask Americans to name their favorite, and the answer will surely be Queso Manchego. The U.S. is one of the world's largest consumers of this Spanish classic, importing almost 4 million pounds last year, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce.
Nutty with a balanced blend of saltiness and lactic tang, neither too pungent nor too bland, this sturdy sheep's milk cheese is easy to like and easy to find in supermarkets, gourmet shops and restaurants.
As its name indicates, Manchego comes from La Mancha, a high plateau in central Spain. Protected by a Denomination of Origin, the name Manchego can be given only to cheeses made from the milk of Manchega sheep in municipalities belonging to the provinces of Albacete, Ciudad Real, Cuenca and Toledo and ripened at least 60 days.
To be sure you are buying the real thing, search for a numbered commercial seal of approval from the Consejo Regulador de la Denominacion de Origin Queso Manchego and a commercial label stating the cheese is made with Manchega sheep milk.
A young Manchego with a minimum of 60 days ripening is labeled fresco. A cheese of about six months is a semi-curado (semi-cured), and one aged from six months to one year is a curado (cured). A cheese aged for more than 16 months is an añejo (aged), and, like a well-structured wine, is usually the most complex, with a drier texture and a more emphatic brininess and pungency.
..... A good source of artisanal Manchego, made with unpasteurized milk for a more pronounced flavor, is La Tienda tienda.com(, 800-710-4304), which sells a 14-month-old reserva for $13 a pound plus shipping.
At any age, Manchego is a pleaser. When young or semi-cured, it is terrific in sandwiches and in the filling of croquettes. A more piquant aged Manchego comes close in pungency to a good Parmigiano Reggiano and it is delicious by itself as a tapa with some crusty bread.
At Cucharamama, I top our serrano ham pizzas and flat breads with a mixture of aged Manchego and Parmigiano Reggiano spiced with ground Andean peppers. There is no more luxurious seasoning for bread.
Maricel E. Presilla is the chef/co-owner of Cucharamama and Zafra in Hoboken, N.J.