Manchego—the sheep's-milk poster cheese of Spanish cuisine—really is the ideal culinary ambassador, as representative of Spanish culture as Parmigiano-Reggiano is of Italian or Roquefort is of French. As artisan cheeses go, it is accessible at all stages of maturity, and its combination of flavors—a delicate balance of buttery, tart, sweet, and nutty—makes it stand out among more ho-hum crowd-pleasers on the cheese board. Beloved by fancy aunts and picky kid brothers alike, Manchego is unmistakably different from cow's-milk cheeses, but without the polarizing gaminess of chèvre. And, while sheep's-milk products are often pricey, the small wheels typically produced age relatively quickly, offsetting to some extent the cost of its expensive main ingredient. (It also helps that Manchego's well-balanced yet concentrated flavor means a little bit goes a long way.) Perhaps best of all, Manchego straddles the line between "basic" and "boutique" with ease, and so can be considered a truly democratic dairy product.
According to The Oxford Companion to Cheese, Manchego is the most popular Spanish cheese, and accounts for more than a third of all traditional cheese production in the country. Its popularity has certainly translated internationally as well. Carlos Yescas, food scholar and program director for the Oldways Cheese Coalition, explains that the cheese's soaring success in the United States is partly due to promotional efforts on the part of the Spanish government, but he also points to the milk. "In the US there was almost no sheep's milk," he says. "That was a space that Manchego could come and inhabit. Good Manchego, the first ones that were coming, they are very easy to eat—they are not super salty, not super sweet, they have the sort of tanginess of the manchega milk. They are nutty and very well rounded."
Until Manchego started trickling in, the most readily available sheep's-milk cheeses in the States were Italian Pecorino Romano and its ilk—long-aged cheeses that are delicious sprinkled sparingly over pasta, but too aggressively salty and pungent for snacking on out of hand. Yescas explains, "[Manchego] is a good cheese that allows itself to do a lot of things. It can be eaten with honey or with Marconas, just eaten by itself or with a little bit of membrillo. It's a cheese that was presented as a dessert cheese, as a sort of fine cuisine, something that can be enjoyed that way. It was an easy sell."
What to Shop For
True Manchego is protected by Spanish Denominación de Origen (DOP) and European Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) regulations, so if you see the PDO insignia printed on the label, or notice a small, numbered plaque pressed into the surface of the rind, you can be sure of a few key characteristics set forth by the DOP guidelines. Like cheddar and Tomme de Savoie, Manchego is an uncooked, pressed-curd cheese; it must be made using the tangy, fatty milk of manchega sheep in their native provinces of Albacete, Ciudad Real, Cuenca, and Toledo, an area due south and southeast of Madrid that makes up the region of La Mancha. The sprawling, dry region has been home to shepherds and cheesemakers for millennia (it also happens to contain the largest continuous wine region in the world).
Wheels of the iconic cheese can easily be identified by their rinds, which are textured in a zigzag pattern from shaping in basket molds made of either plastic or traditional braided grass. The natural rind is usually treated with an anti-molding agent, and a thin wax coating is often added. Apart from the rind, DOP-approved wheels will also include a tab or label that verifies their credentials.
In Spain, wheels of Manchego are categorized according to their age, ranging from the two-week fresco to semicurado (three weeks to four months), curado (three to six months), and añejo or viejo (one to two years). But overlap between the categories, as well as the additional time the cheese spends in transit and customs, can lead to confusion about the designations, which is why, here in the US, Manchego is usually advertised by its numerical age.
What You'll Find Inside
Manchego's firm interior can range from white to pale yellow depending on age, with lots of tiny, lacy pores that exude butterfat at room temperature. Sheep's milk contains nearly twice the percentage of butterfat found in cow's or goat's milk, and milk from the requisite manchega breed is said to be particularly rich and flavorful.
While younger Spanish cheese producers have begun to explore new styles of cheesemaking, heritage recipes like Manchego are still considered precious. Clara Díez is a co-owner of Quesería Cultivo, a Madrid-based artisan cheese producer and boutique that specializes in Spain's new wave of craft cheeses, but she is quick to point out that "there is no conflict between the traditional cheesemakers and the new cheesemakers." Cultivo's younger producers find it more effective to add value to their milk by using artisan techniques to create new products, but Díez explains that it is "part of our commitment to also preserve the tradition.... We have to preserve that kind of recipe, those classical, traditional cheeses like Manchego."
At over 30,000 square miles, La Mancha is an enormous region for a single DOP designation—so large that it "allows for a very big variety of producers and landscapes," according to Yescas. Carrie Davenport, of the specialty food importer the Rogers Collection, believes that even DOP Manchego can be divided into two main types: industrial, supermarket versions and raw-milk, artesano production. She explains that "artesano Manchego is what you will see the local Spanish population (especially in La Mancha) eat—they line up for the true production and celebrate with artesano Manchego at family gatherings." Industrial Manchego is fantastic for grating over vegetables, for folding into biscuit dough, or for marinating in olive oil and herbs. Artisan wheels warrant a few sweet or salty accompaniments, a friendly Spanish wine, and more thoughtful nibbling. Below are a few recommendations to get you started.
Manchego (and Its Cousins) to Try
Manchego fresco has a very short shelf life, and practically never makes its way to the US. If you're ever lucky enough to sample it here or in Spain, look for a raw-milk, artesano version. Davenport describes the young version as "refreshing and mild compared to what we love and know of Manchego.... It is best in the hot summer of Spain, when the heat of the day encourages you to want a light, refreshing meal."
The youngest true Manchegos that tend to be available here in the US start at about three months old (making them either semicurado or curado, according to the Spanish categorization). The large brand Los Carpinteros is widely distributed and available from Despaña. Always avoid individually cryovacked slices, and, whenever possible, have your cheesemonger cut a slice fresh for you; springy, semi-firm cheeses like young Manchego are particularly susceptible to absorbing off flavors from prolonged contact with plastic wrap. Young wheels have a bit more chew and moisture to them, with a delicate, lactic sweetness.
Enjoy young Manchego with Cava, fino sherry, and oily green olives.
You'll find a lot more variety among producers of older Manchegos, including more raw-milk options. A six-month version from the producer Mitica is available through FreshDirect. Despaña sells a sweet and nutty 12-month raw-milk version from Los Carpinteros, and the Rogers Collection brings in Dolores Palomares Pasamontes's spectacular unpasteurized, unwaxed wheels, available at Bklyn Larder. Quesería Cultivo is working to export a curated selection of Spanish cheeses, including an artesano DOP Manchego, to the US within the next year or two.
As wheels of Manchego age, they become more crumbly and concentrated; crunchy salt and calcium crystals begin to form throughout, and their oiliness becomes more pronounced. Artisanally produced wheels, even from the same producer, will show a great deal of variation from season to season and even batch to batch—sample them all! Eat six- to 10-month curado wheels with fresh figs and chorizo, and pair viejo wheels with honey, membrillo, and Marcona almonds. A bold Rioja would be lovely with either.
Oveja al Romero (Manchego-Style Cheese Packed in Rosemary)
The cheese-schlepping world holds a general disdain toward cheeses with "stuff" in or on them. Be it blueberry Wensleydale, pepper Jack, or horseradish cheddar, Serious Cheese Folk tend to think that if a cheese is worth its salt, it shouldn't need any added seasonings. I'm as guilty as the next snob. But, hey, there are exceptions out there, and this Manchego-style cheese, rubbed in olive oil and packed in rosemary, is one of them.
When asked about this cheese, Carlos Yescas admits his affection, proposing, "Let's say you start with a very good Manchego...raw milk, artisanal production. And then you put the same quality of rosemary: You end up with an amazing cheese.... There are a lot of cheeses that have been traditionally made with flavors. There's a whole understanding that needs to happen about why these flavors are used."
Rubbing wheels of cheese in olive oil is a classic method for locking in moisture, and fantastically fragrant rosemary grows in the area where these wheels are produced, making the herb as reflective of the terroir as the cheese itself. Trim the rind away from this one—the dried rosemary is a bit too stemmy to chew on, but it infuses the savory paste with woodsy, green perfume. Great with pata negra jamón ibérico and jammy Tempranillo or a lighter Cabernet.
Idiazábal (Basque Sheep's-Milk Cheese)
This formidable wheel from the Spanish Pyrenees is similar in taste and texture to its manchega cousin, but with a major defining difference: Most of the Idiazábal that makes it over to the US is slightly smoked, a throwback to the days when it was stored in the chimneys of Basque shepherds. Like Manchego, Idiazábal is a DOP cheese; it is made in the same pressed-curd method, but typically from the raw milk of Latxa sheep. It has fewer holes than Manchego and can easily be identified by its hardened brown rind. Even at two to three months, this cheese is dense and quite dry, with a sweet nuttiness that will appeal to fans of Manchego. Nevertheless, Steven Jenkins, cheese expert and author of Cheese Primer, explains that "no matter how strong or sharp, it is Idiazábal's mountain perfume and butteriness that rule the taste experience."
Eat it outside, with crisp apples, ham, and a bottle of spicy Garnacha from Navarra.
GranQueso From Roth Käse, Wisconsin
Wisconsin's GranQueso is loosely made in the style of Manchego, but (scandalously) using pasteurized cow's milk. In keeping with Manchego's traditional role as a dessert cheese, this all-American flavor bomb is rubbed with baking spices; its potent sweetness makes it a sure bet for fans of aged Gouda and Parmesan. In The Cheese Chronicles, Liz Thorpe compares its aroma to "almond and sucker candies—not exactly butterscotch but caramel...like butter and sugar cooked down to a toasty glaze."
A little bit goes a long way with this American invention. Balance its candy sweetness with salty Marconas and a nutty, off-dry Amontillado.