Creating Portuguese cheese is labor-intensive, but the results make it worth the effort.
Portugal’s most famous consumable may be Port, but everybody knows that few foods pair better with wine than cheese. So it should come as no surprise that this small country on the Iberian Peninsula produces outstanding cheeses—some so good they were once used in place of currency. From soft cheeses melting inside hard rinds to crumbly, firm cheeses that are perfect for grating, everyone can find something they’ll love on a Portuguese cheese platter.
Americans may struggle to find these cheeses in local stores unless they live in an area with a high population of immigrants. Those who can locate a hunk of Queijo Serra da Estrela or Queijo de São Jorge might find the price relatively high, especially for a newcomer looking to experiment. There are good reasons for the higher sticker price, says Michele Buster, co-founder of the import company Forever Cheese, based in Astoria, NY, and she hopes people won’t be scared off by it.
“Portuguese cheese is expensive to make because it’s labor intensive, especially if you want artisan cheeses and not just ones made for the mass market,” she says. “The softer, creamier cheeses have to be flown in. The logistics are difficult because many of these cheeses have to be brought in from isolated areas.”
But cheese enthusiasts should still give these cheeses a chance if they find them. On their own or paired with a good slice of bread and some common Portuguese condiments, they are a true hedonistic delight.
For people who simply can’t find them, Portugal is a great location for a post-COVID vacation. Though the country has long been overshadowed by more popular European destinations, interest in Portugal and its products has been trending upward. The nation is relatively uncrowded, affordable and full of friendly people who speak English. The sparkling waters of the Atlantic, eclectic architecture and towering mountains dotted with sheep and cows provide varied and breathtaking scenery to enjoy while noshing on simple but delightful foods.
Like many European countries, Portugal has a system for labeling and controlling agricultural products that come from certain regions and are made with particular methods and quality standards. Here, it is referred to as the denominação de origem protegida or DOP.
About a dozen Portuguese cheeses carry the designation. Perhaps the best-known is Queijo Serra da Estrela (which, like many cheeses, can be DOP or non-DOP). It is made in the “amanteigado” style, which Buster describes as a “creamy, oozy, super sexy cheese” with a distinctive buttery texture. Many amanteigado cheese come in a round with a hard rind that can be peeled back to reveal the creamy center. Locals sometimes refer to this process as “removing the top.”
“Queijo Serra da Estrela is a raw sheep’s milk cheese that comes from the mountainous region in northern Portugal where sheep are everywhere,” says Michael Benevides, owner of Portugalia Marketplace in Fall River, MA. “It’s a very buttery, very runny cheese that has a fair amount of intensity. It’s not entry level cheese by any means. When you put it in your fridge, all you can smell when you open the door is that cheese.”
Another very popular cheese is Queijo de São Jorge, which is made on an island bearing the same name in the Azores, a small island chain about 900 miles off the coast of Portugal. “These cows graze on salty pastures, giving this cheese a unique, sometimes pungent and sharp finish,” says Benevides.
São Jorge is a cow’s milk cheese that is typically aged between three and 24 months. It has a firm but slightly crumbly texture. “The more it ages, the more crystalizing happens,” Benevides notes. “After 24 months, it’s almost crumbling.” Like Parmesan, it’s good for shredding.
For many years, all of the cheeses on the Azores came from cooperatives. “In the last five or six years, you’re starting to see smaller producers of cheese,” says Benevides. One of his favorites is omorro amanteigado, a cow’s milk cheese with a soft center that comes from the island of Faial. “With aging, it becomes a little firmer, and it takes on a nutty flavor.”
São Miguel is the main island in the Azores archipelago. Cheesemakers there are known for São Miguel Queijo Velho, a firm cheese wrapped in a distinctive black wrapper that is aged for nine months. “It has nice salt crystals and is also a great cheese for grating,” says Benevides. Queijo de Pico DOP, a rich, salty cheese from the island of Pico, is another product worth seeking out.
More Mainland Cheeses
Back on the mainland, located about an hour south of the capital city of Lisbon, is the Setúbal District of Portugal. This seafront area is known for its Queijo de Azeitão DOP. It is described as a mix of tangy and salty with a floral quality that runs through every bite. The flowery flavor comes from thistle flower (also called cardoon), which is used as a coagulant in many Portuguese DOP cheeses. When added to milk, the flower’s stamens break down the caseins in a particular way and help give it the amanteigado texture, says Buster. It also provides the distinctive flavor and aroma.
Farther inland, along the border with Spain, lies Beira Baixa. Given its strategic position, it is a region filled with many castles and fortresses and a rich history. Its most famous cheese is named for the former provincial seat, Castelo Branco. It’s a semi-soft cheese with a pronounced spicy and tangy flavor that develops a crumbly texture as it ages.
“Amarelo da Beira Baixa is a very fun mixed milk cheese from Portugal made with goat and sheep milk,” says Buster. Its texture ranges from semi-soft to semi-hard. The flavor is complex and can include buttery, grassy and tangy notes. People who can take some heat should seek out Queijo Picante de Beira Baixa DOP, which can be made with sheep or goat’s milk and is described as the spiciest of Portuguese cheeses.
Beira Baixa translates to “Beira Lower.” There is a “Beira Upper,” known as Beira Alta. Buster is a proponent of two lesser-known cheeses from this area. Alva is a rich, creamy, crowd-pleasing goat cheese. She calls Ovelha Amanteigado “an excellent alternative to Serra de Estrela.” It is another soft, floral sheep’s milk cheese with a hint of lanolin that is great for spreading or dipping.
South of Beira Baixa is Alentejo, a hot, dry region best known for cork trees and “porco preto” or black pork, a thinly-sliced meat similar to prosciutto. The area has three DOP cheeses that are hard to find in the U.S. but loved by locals. Évora DOP, named for the historic main city, is a semi-hard cheese made with raw sheep’s milk that has a moderate, peppery flavor. “It comes in 3-inch and 1-inch rounds, and they used to pay workers with it,” says Buster. “They would keep it in olive oil and, when they had to pay someone, they would dip their fingers in and give them one.”
Queijo de Nisa DOP is another raw sheep’s milk cheese with a semi-hard texture. The flavor is strong and earthy, with herbal and even citrus notes. Queijo de Serpa DOP begins life as a soft, runny cheese with a tangy, floral flavor. As it ages, it becomes firmer in texture and stronger in flavor. A delicious non-DOP choice from Alentejo is the amanteigado cheese Queijo Monte da Vinha, which is known for its buttery texture and flavor.
Pairing Portuguese Cheeses
According to Benevides, the Portuguese don’t cook with cheese very much. He will sometimes grate the hard cheeses over the top of salads or pasta dishes for a salty bite. “Cheese is a staple breakfast food,” he says. A slice of Queijo de São Jorge or another type of cheese melted across the top of a roll is a common first meal for the day.
“Cheese is more of an appetizer or a dessert,” says Buster. “You’re enjoying the cheese with jam or honey and a good piece of bread.” The Portuguese are fond of doce de tomate or tomato jam, which is made with cinnamon and maybe a sweet wine like Madeira or Port. Other popular condiments are doce de ginja, a sour cherry jam, and doce de abóbora, which is made from pumpkin.
Buster likes a simple chestnut or oak honey with cheese. She also sometimes pairs it with a rosemary honey mixed with hazelnuts. Portuguese almonds are another delicious pairing with cheese. Nuts from the country tend to have a higher fat content than those found in other countries, giving them a rich, sweet flavor and satisfying crunch. And, of course, you can’t go wrong pairing Portuguese cheese with the wines that made the country famous, including sweet Ports and dry red, whites and rosés.