By Tatiana Pietrzak
Miguel de Cervantes mentioned Manchego cheese in his novel Don Quixote from the 1600s. However, Manchego goes back much further in time than that. Archeologists have found evidence of it being made by shepherds on the La Mancha plains well before the time of Christ. It stretches way back to the Iberian civilization during the Bronze Age (3000 – 1200 B.C.)
The Making of Manchego
Traditionally curds from sheep milk were pressed into plaited grass baskets which left a distinctive herring-bone or zig-zag pattern on the rind. The same pattern of this rugged grass that is found all over Spain called “esparto”, is now replicated by the use of plastic molds. Called Queso Manchego in Spanish, it is aged in caves between 60 days and 2 years So when shopping you may see Young Manchego or Aged Manchego. Each has a distinct color with the aged one being darker. The taste also varies somewhat.
Authentic Manchego must be produced in the La Mancha region of Spain. It is produced from the sheep of the Manchega breed. The ancestors of this breed were those of the Bronze Age. The region of these sheep sits in designated parts of Albacete, Ciudad Real, and Toledo. The Coruera family of the Toledo province were the first to commercialize the cheese.
The farmhouse version uses unpasteurized milk whereas the industrial versions use pasteurized milk. It is dense and buttery, caramel-like and nutty, with unevenly distributed air pockets. Longer aged Manchego starts to taste like butterscotch. It crumbles easily and has the aftertaste of sheep’s milk. It is best paired with Sherry and served in a variety of ages in Spanish restaurants.
This is a cheese to try over and over again as it pairs with many things. Figs, plumbs and fruity chutneys are a good way to start. Often Quince Paste is used because the paste creates a great contrast of flavors. Olives, sundried tomatoes, and crusty bread are also used to accompany the cheese. It grills well, and so can be cooked in grilled cheese sandwiches, grated over pasta as a substitute for Parmesan, accompany Iberian ham, and used in Quesadillas with spicy chorizo. It also goes well with squash, beans, tomatoes, and onions. Try with red wines such as Rioja or Tempranillo. It is low in lactose and so may be tolerated by lactose intolerant tasters.