Some Context:

One of my favorite travel experiences thus far has been the week I spent in Portugal. During the spring of 2015, I visited the southern half of the country, stopping in Lisbon and Lagos. Both places, located on the coast, were strikingly beautiful. The city of Lisbon was covered with mosaic sidewalks and lined with bright, tile buildings. From an aerial point of view, just about every roof was a burnt orange color, contrasting with the clear, turquoise Atlantic. Lagos is home to some of the highest-ranked beaches in the world. Every beach had tall ochre-colored boulders spotted around the sand and peaking up out of the water near the shore. The teal water looked so inviting but is only warm enough to swim in during the summer months, as I found out the hard way during my visit in April.

Another memorable part of my trip to Portugal was the amazing food I ate while I was there. The seafood was so fresh and cheap because of the country’s easy access to the ocean.

One food I don’t remember eating any of while I was there is cheese. However, unbeknownst to me at the time of my visit, Portugal specializes in cheese-making and produces world-renowned cheeses with unusual and intense flavors.

Casa Lusa is a small artisanal producer based in Portugal. They produce their cheeses small-batch, including their award-winning Zimbro. Zimbro, meaning “juniper” in Portuguese, is made from the milk of sheep who hail from the highest peaks in Portugal, the Serra da Estrela Mountains up north.

Procuring and Tasting:

The first thing that differentiates this cheese from most is the type of rennet used to make it. “What’s rennet?” you ask. Good question. Rennet is the enzyme that causes milk to coagulate, or separate into curds (solids) and whey (liquid). Traditionally, cheesemakers have used the lining of a calf’s stomach as rennet. It’s only found in baby cows, and all herbivorous and omnivorous mammals for that matter, because its purpose is to help the baby digest its mothers milk. After the baby can forage for him or herself, rennet is no longer needed and disappears.

In recent times, alternatives to animal rennet have become more popular. Such substitutions include microbial and vegetable rennet. Zimbro, like many cheeses from the Iberian peninsula, uses a vegetable rennet called thistle from the cardoon plant, a relative of the artichoke.

Since my time working with cheese, I’ve noticed that vegetable-rennet cheeses often carry an herbal taste that comes across as bitter. Bitter it is, that Zimbro, along with a handful of other flavors that make it stand out among the rest, including tartness, spiciness, and hints of berry and bark.

Like I said earlier, a “unique” cheese.

Cardoon Plant

Another characteristic of thistle rennet cheeses, Zimbro included, is their texture. With a paste that is pudding-like and creamy, enclosed in a leathery rind, Zimbro is perfectly spreadable.

Like most cheeses, washed rinds such as Zimbro, evolve in flavor and texture as they age. I tasted Zimbro in two stages: the first was slightly over-ripe, the second was just ripe enough, some might even argue it was slightly under-ripe. Cheese can still taste good no matter where it is on the ripeness spectrum; it just depends on your taste. I think of cheese as akin to a banana in this way.

The first round of Zimbro I bought from a provisions store in Sacramento, California called The Rind for $26/lb. I served it on a platter at a family event, my dad’s wedding. It was really creamy and intense in flavor. Very sour and very piquant. It was a divisive appetizer: guests either loved it or hated it. I personally found it to be a complex and intriguing food but wouldn’t choose it as a snacking cheese.

Zimbro from The Rind at the bottom middle

With everything going on at the wedding, I wasn’t able to be thoughtful about my tasting of Zimbro so I bought another wedge from Lucy’s Whey for $24.95/lb when I returned home. This version was much meatier in texture and more approachable in flavor – it had all the same characteristics, just turned down a few notches.

Zimbro with hard cider

Cooking with Zimbro:

With all the harsh, pungent flavors going on in Zimbro, its sweetness is left buried and needs a little help from a pairing to lift it out of hiding. I paired my Zimbro with a cider. If it’s not the season, or cider just isn’t your thing, honey or jam would go well with this cheese.

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