Manchego cheese is a classic, a beloved and one of the most consumed cheeses in the world. Hell, it even made an appearance in Cervantes’ famed and historic novel, Don Quixote. Manchego is so timeless because of it’s mild yet nuanced taste.
Hailing from the La Mancha region of Spain, Manchego is made from the milk of one of the few livestock animals that can survive the harsh and barren conditions of this region: sheep. The climate is overall pretty arid, with temperatures that severely fluctuate with the seasons. It is located 2,600 feet above sea level, and it derives its name from the language of the Arabic residents who used to rule the area from the eight to eleventh century. They called the region manyá, meaning waterless.
The production of Manchego cheese can be traced back thousands of years ago. Today it is one of Spain’s few name protected cheeses (Denominacion de Origen Protegida). To be called Manchego, a cheese must be produced from provinces within La Mancha, be made from the milk of the Manchega sheep and be aged for 60 days.
Procuring and Tasting:
There are a number of Manchego cheese producers. I bought Essex Manchego, mostly because it was most accessible to me, but also because it is made from raw milk. Essex St. Cheese Co. is a wholesale cheese importer who also provide the Parmigiano-Reggiano I profiled a couple of months ago. They procure classic European cheeses and sell them to distributors and retailers. They work with a cheesemaker named Maria Jose who produces Manchego cheese at Finca Sierra La Solana, a ranch that has been growing various produce since 1978. Maria Jose makes all of her Manchego from a single herd of 500 ewes.
In addition being made from unpasteurized milk, another noteworthy aspect of Maria Jose’s Manchego is that it features a natural rind, as opposed to a plastic rind, which allows the cheese to breath.
Manchego is the kind of cheese that appeals to everyone: your grandmother, your 3-year old, maybe even your dog. It’s the introvert of cheeses for its quiet and gentle, yet subtle and complex taste. Its flavor is salty and sweet, with a touch of tang and its texture is creamy and granular.
Cooking and Pairing with Manchego:
Manchego is extremely versatile and is traditionally served as/with a number of meals: appetizer, main, dessert, etc.
A classic Spanish pairing is Manchego and quince paste. Quince is a fruit, similar in taste to an apple or pear, that can endure dry conditions. The quince paste was definitely the dominant of the two ingredients, however the Manchego had its moment by cutting the sweetness of the paste with its salinity. I also found a recipe for Chorizo-Manchego quesadillas online that I had to try. The chorizo’s smoky flavor and the roasted red onions’ sweetness blanketed any trace of Manchego. However, being the wonderful melter that it is, the Manchego added a soft, cushion-y texture to the dish.