HERE’S WHAT MOST OF US KNOW ABOUT MANCHEGO: it’s a sheep’s milk cheese from Spain, increasingly found at supermarkets and deli counters in addition to its ubiquitous appearance on tapas menus. In fact, Manchego seems to be almost everywhere – a surprising observation given its Bronze Age provenance. Few foods survive the test of that much time.
Fine Manchegos embody a primal sheepiness laced with inflections of scorched, full-fat milk: they are caramel and brown sugar, transmogrified. Some wheels skew toward meatiness, some have more fruity characteristics, some a piquant, savory spice profile, but it’s the deep, gamy sheep’s milk flavors that remain a signature of Manchego, across brands and across time. Texturally, Manchego is very firm or hard, depending on the amount of time it’s been aged, and ranges from slightly moist to very dry and granular.
When something is omnipresent it’s easy to overlook what makes it unique. But Manchego is absolutely worthy of closer examination; what makes it distinctive transcends fads and marketing trends. Manchego represents a taste of place; and even more than that it represents the work of hundreds of thousands of sheep and shepherds, over thousands of years. Manchego can taste like history and heritage, but it can also taste like last year’s crops, last year’s precipitation, and last year’s sunshine. It is ancient and au courant at the same time.
It’s important to note that as Manchego’s popularity gains momentum in the United States, cheeses with prominent, dulcet sweetness tend to be more common, befitting the preferences of the American palate. This unfortunate market trend proffers cheeses with an imbalance of sweetness and acidity and a general deficit of complexity. These are not the Manchegos we’re exploring here.
Manchego hails from the vast, rocky plateaus southeast of Madrid in the geographical region of Castilla La Mancha, encompassing the provinces of Toledo and Cuenca in the north and Ciudad Real and Albacete in the south. At 2,600 feet above sea level, La Mancha is a region of extreme elements: in winter deep frosts cover the rugged plains; in summer an abundance of sunshine brings intense heat and long dry spells to the region, making La Mancha hospitable only to the heartiest life forms. Thousands of years ago the original Arab inhabitants named the region “Al Mansha,” meaning “waterless land.” In this harsh but beautiful terrain, shepherds forged a culture reaching back to before the time of Christ. It is the very challenges of La Mancha’s natural environment that has shaped the who, what, and where of Manchego cheese.
The fundamental building block of Manchego is the high-fat, nutrient-dense whole milk of Manchega sheep, an ancient breed domesticated by shepherds who bred them in exclusivity, ensuring the preservation of their unique breed characteristics. Manchego production has been regulated by the Spanish government since 1984 and is a PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) cheese within the European Union. While there are several significant variations permitted (most notably both raw and pasteurized versions of the cheese are produced), one thing remains constant: all Manchego is made solely from the whole milk of Manchega sheep, residing in La Mancha.
A connection to the land is at the center of culture and cuisine in La Mancha. Simplicity and comfort are key to the region’s victuals: warm-climate fruits and vegetables do well in the summer months — tomatoes, peppers, eggplant and garlic all feature prominently on the table. Manchegos of varying ages, wild game, and farmed meats are the proteins of choice. Wine is also an important part of La Mancha’s agricultural production, and the symbiotic relationship between the signature cheese of the region and lush, hearty red wines like Tempranillo and Garnacha are key to understanding the historical and agricultural conditions that continue to define Manchego.
Manchego has a consistent shape and rind due to production regulations. Curd is ladled into esparto molds (made from a thick, woody grass used to make rope and wicker) or molds meant to mimic the esparto imprint: a zigzag, basket weave pattern that’s grafted onto the sides of the cheese. Boards bearing a “wheat ear” pattern are then used to press the cheese into the molds, imprinting another distinctive marking onto the top and bottom of the wheels. The cheese is then aged for up to three months to produce “Semicurado” Manchego or up to six months to produce “Curado” Manchego. “Fresco” Manchego — aged for mere weeks — and “Viejo” Manchego — aged for one year and used mostly as a grating cheese — are also produced, though one would have to travel to Spain to enjoy them, as they’re generally not exported. Industrially produced Manchego often has a waxed rind, while smaller, artisanal versions most commonly have natural, unwaxed rinds.
There are several standout Manchegos imported to the United States. These Manchegos retain the hallmarks of traditional while exhibiting traits unique to each producer.
1605 Manchego is a raw, farmstead Manchego produced by Finca Sierra La Solana and matured for six months. Manchegos from this finca are selected for import to the U.S. by Essex Street Cheese Co., which selects individual wheels based on a balanced, nuanced flavor profile. 1605 Manchego has a toothsome and slightly granular texture with a meaty aroma and notes of nutmeg and cinnamon.
La Oveja Negra Reserve Manchego is a thermized, farmstead, certified organic Manchego handmade by the Parra family. Matured a minimum of nine months, La Oveja Negra Reserve is fruity and grassy with tempered notes of brown sugar and a crumbly, drier texture.
Finca Fuentillezjos Manchego Curado is a raw, farmstead, certified organic Manchego imported exclusively by Pondini Imports. Matured for six months, Fuentillexjos Manchego is fruity and slightly sweet with a fair amount of moistness due to its expert maturation.
Pasamontes Manchego DOP is a raw, farmstead Manchego made by a fourth generation cheesemaker in her small family creamery that’s been operational since 1856. Matured for three, six or twelve months, this Manchego has a natural and edible rind. Nutty, tangy, and piquant, with a nice long finish, Pasamontes Manchego is an excellent example of the nuance and complexity of small production, single herd Manchegos. CC