Manchego: Spanish Pride, Universal Deliciousness

This cheese from Spain has widespread
appeal due to its rich, bold flavor.

Manchego is simply iconic. It’s nearly impossible to think of Spanish cheese without this sheep’s milk wheel springing immediately to mind. Manchego hails from the provinces of Albacete, Ciudad Real, Cuenca and Toledo in Castile-La Mancha in central Spain, a region of lush pastures dotted with castles and windmills a la Don Quixote. (Cervantes wrote about Manchego in his “Don Quixote of La Mancha,” so it’s a cheese with literary credentials).

Manchego is flavorful yet absolutely approachable, a great choice for cheese newbies and experts alike. It has a briny tartness, beautifully balanced by an undercurrent of sweetness. Depending on the season, the wheel and the maker, it might have sweet notes of caramel or honey or a piquant, gamey spiciness. (Cheese­mongers I spoked with laughed that many seem to think the cheese is pronounced “Man-chen-go,” inserting a second “n” that doesn’t belong.)

Made from the milk of Manchega sheep, Manchego is one of the most beloved Spanish exports. Archaeologists have found evidence that dates cheesemaking in the La Mancha region to as far back as the Bronze Age. The traditional methods of producing Manchego have been preserved with a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) since 1984. The exterior of the wheels sport a telltale basketweave rind, made from the grass molds that press into the rind as Manchego matures and made to evoke the imprint of traditional esparto molds.

“Manchego accounts for about a third of the production of Spain’s cheese,” says Lydia Burns, founder of the cheese consulting company Savvy Squirrel Consulting. Burns also works for the boutique cheese importer Rogers Collection in Yarmouth, ME, and teaches cheese education to culinary school students. The cheese is especially “emblematic and cool because Spain is the only traditional cheese­making country from Europe where the majority of production is not from cow’s milk.”

Sheep’s milk gives Manchego much of its characteristic richness and bold flavor. On average, sheep’s milk is 7.4% butterfat compared to 3.7% for cow’s milk and 3.6% for goat’s milk. It also contains more lactose and minerals than either. “Sheep’s milk cheeses have a great supple texture because of their higher fat and casein content,” Burns explains. “There are tangy, light flavors in lactic younger cheeses, and then a more intense flavor as it ages, with rich notes of olive oil. The flavor of the milk itself really stands out.”

Like Parmigiano Reggiano in Italy or Gruyère in the Swiss Alps, Manchego cheese carries with it a sense of deeply rooted tradition and regional identity and pride.

It All Starts with the Sheep

Manchega sheep, who we can thank for Manchego, are native to the La Mancha plateau in New Castile. They are white and black and often a combination of both colors. Their ancestors were called Ovis aries ligeries, and these sheep migrated across the Pyrenees and much of northern Spain before finally settling in La Mancha, where they were domesticated and bred for their milk. La Mancha’s terrain is too rugged for cows, but it’s perfect for sheep to thrive, especially manchegas.

“Sheep are hard to raise, and don’t make a lot of milk,” says Burns. “In Spain, the local breed is subsidized by the government. A major ingredient is time: over many years, the manchega sheep have been bred for productivity.”

“Manchego is a full-bodied, rich, flavorful and highly approachable cheese,” says Jen Lopez, an account manager at Forever Cheese, Astoria, NY. “Because of its rise in popularity over the last year, more Manchego is available than ever before.”

“Not all Manchego is created equal,” Lopez explains. Although PDO regulates many rules for the cheese’s production, there is still room for differences and nuances among producers, from the size of their operation to what they feed their sheep. The finest cheese is often made when the milk is richest, between August and December. At over 30,000 square miles, the region for making Manchego is huge, and microclimates within the areas make for wheels with distinct flavor profiles and personalities. Some makers coat their rinds with wax or other protective substances (others don’t); some use raw milk while many use pasteurized; and production can be automated or done by hand.

Age is a huge factor, too. Younger varieties have a “mild but pleasant full mouthfeel,” according to Burns. In these relatively fresh cheeses, the taste of the milk really shines through. Over months of careful aging, “savory, deep olive oil flavors emerge.”

In Spain, wheels of Manchego are sold according to their age, ranging from semicurado (three weeks to four months), curado (three to six months), and añejo or viejo (one to two years). In the U.S., Manchego is usually categorized by its age in months (easier for us to understand!).

Forever Cheese imports a wide variety of Manchego, including a wheel aged for six months called Chisquero. It’s a farmstead cheese (it uses milk from its own herd to craft the cheese) from a family farm in Ciudad Real that has been raising sheep for more than 200 years. A herd of 3,000 sheep live on the farm, which is run by solar energy. Cheesemaker Gabriel is part of the fifth generation of the Melgarejo family that owns the farm. He makes his signature Manchego Chisquero with raw Manchega sheep’s milk, rubbing the rind in olive oil. It has a supple, buttery flavor with a tangy finish.

Manchego Corcuera is made by the Corcuera family in La Puebla de Montalban, a small town just 20 minutes from Toledo. Its cheese is crafted from fresh milk the same day, and it’s aged for three months. The cheese boasts a fantastic butteriness and well-rounded, clean flavor of the sheep’s milk. Quesos Corcuera spans three generations of the Corcuera family. It all started with Eusebio and Julia, then their sons Ramon and Carlos took over; their sister Carmen and her niece Patricia are currently in charge. The family was instrumental in helping to create the DOP for Manchego in 1985. From a tiny house to a full-on factory, the operation has expanded over the generations but retains its commitment to fine craft and tradition.

The Rogers Collection imports a raw milk Manchego from Pasamontes Manchego, from the milk of five local shepherded flocks, and it is aged for a year. They graze on wild juniper, lavender, rosemary and thyme. Made from raw milk, this wheel is on another level of complexity with a long-lingering finish. Cheesemaker M. Dolores Palomares is the fourth generation in her family to carry on the shepherding and cheesemaking tradition—her great grandmother started the dairy. The cheese has deep flavors of hay and allspice, and is a beautiful testament to the possibilities of Manchego.

The Tapas Tradition

Manchego is often enjoyed as a part of a tapas spread, and you’ll see it in bars and restaurants from Madrid to New York City. Tapas originated as a bar snack to accompany wine and satisfy diners before Spain’s famously late dinnertime. The ritual of tapas dates back hundreds of years. It can be as simple as some bites of cheese and ham or a whole elaborate spread of small plates.

In bars around Spain, marinated Manchego sits on counters ready to be devoured. Oftentimes, Manchego is sliced and enjoyed as-is, perhaps with some crusty bread, olives, Marcona almonds and a glass of juicy Tempranillo. The nutty richness of Manchego makes it great for pairing with wine. Other great drinks to savor with Manchego include crisp dry whites such as Albarino or Vermentino, or bubbly Cava, which cuts through the cheese’s buttery mouthfeel. A single-malt whiskey can stand up to the savory, big flavors of an aged Manchego.

Membrillo, a firm, sweet-tart quince paste is a classic accompaniment for Manchego. “It’s perfect because it’s sweet but not cloyingly sweet,” explains Lopez. “The bit of acidity from pectin and quince reacts perfectly with the fattiness of the cheese.”

Other times, Manchego may be incorporated into recipes. It can be melted with dates, skewered with roasted pimento peppers, melted atop meatballs or even fried. “There’s been a real Manchego shortage during the pandemic,” says Lopez. “People’s purchasing habits changed, and sales exploded in the U.S. and Europe. We’re waiting for cheese to age. We still can’t see the end of that tunnel yet—we don’t know yet when we’ll be all caught up, and we will be experiencing that for quite some time.”

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