A selection of fine Spanish cheeses
“Jesus of Spain”? No, not “Jesus”, we said “cheeses”! If the truth be told, cheese has been around since long before Jesus showed up and, in fact, it predates recorded history so we don’t even know if it originated in one particular place, but in all probability it did so independently in various parts of the world in different forms, much in the same way as other ancients such as bread, beer and wine.
Queso or formatge?
The Spanish word for cheese is queso, from the Latin caseus formatus, which meant molded cheese. The caseus part referring to the cheese itself and formatus meaning molded (as in shaped, not mouldy!) The word caseus gave rise to queso in Spanish (queijo in Portuguese), while the Catalan word, formatge, derives from formatus, as does fromage in French or formaggio in Italian.
The “Big Cheeses”!
When we think of cheese in more modern times the first country that comes to most people’s minds is almost certainly France. A popular French proverb has it that there is a different French fromage for every day of the year – although there are in fact far more than 365. Italy also has around the same number of varieties at over 400, and, perhaps surprisingly to many, Britain claims to have over 600 types, although France, Italy and Spain all have more appellations. The top 5 producers worldwide are, in order, USA, Germany, France, Italy and the Netherlands and the biggest consumers are France, Germany and the Scandinavian countries.
Although not as famous for its cheeses as its illustrious neighbours on the other side of the Pyrenees, this country has a surprising assortment of regional varieties of its own, well over 100 varieties in all. Its warmer and drier climate, compared to more northern cheese-producing nations, is reflected in its cheeses. Generally speaking, the northern Atlantic regions of Galicia, Asturias, Cantabria and the Basque Country use more cow’s milk in their cheeses while the provinces of the interior of the country use a lot more sheep’s milk. From Catalunya down through Valencia, Murcia and all the way to Andalucia, as well as on Las Canarias and Islas Baleares, goat’s milk is more common. You will also come across a lot of cheeses made using a mixture of different milks. As is the case with wines, olive oils, cured meats and many other products, there are quality control stamps of authenticity that apply to Spanish cheeses. The labels on cheese are either D.O.P. (Denominación de Origen Protegida) or I.G.P. (Indicación de Origen Protegida) that guarantee the product is made in a certain area and in a certain traditional manner.
Spanish quesos can mostly be divided into three basic categories:
- Queso fresco – literally “fresh”, not aged and not cured.
- Semi-curado – this type has been cured and aged for somewhere between 2 and 4 months.
- Curado – this is where it gets really interesting with these cheeses having been cured and aged for at least 4 months and for as long as… well, that all depends on the variety!
A dozen of the best
As we mentioned, there are well over a hundred different types of Spanish cheese and the ones you will like best will obviously come down to your own personal tastes and preferences. Nevertheless, here are a dozen examples from around the country:
Manchego – Castilla-La Mancha
Manchego is Spain’s most famous queso, both at home and abroad. It takes its name from its region of origin, Castilla-La Mancha and is believed to have been produced on its arid plains for hundreds, if not thousands, of years, possibly even since the Bronze Age, using only milk from native Manchega ewes. It is known to have been used in barter with shepherds due to its durability and it also features in Cervantes’ literary masterpiece, Don Quixote, so it certainly has history. Its D.O.P. requires that it be aged for at least 60 days (semi-curado) and up to 2 years (curado) and it is recognizable by the zigzag pattern on its rind. The semi-curado is generally quite mild with a slightly sweet and nutty flavour, with the intensity of flavour increasing with the curado version with its longer aging. Manchego is especially popular in tapas restaurants and goes very well with cured ham and a Rioja wine, sherry or cava. There is also a Manchego Artesano which is made with raw milk and is spicier and peppery. Manchego accounts for about a third of all the country’s traditional cheese production!
Cabrales – Asturias
For most people, cabrales is one of those love-it or hate-it cheeses! It’s a strong-smelling and tasting, handmade, acidic, gourmet blue cheese made from either solely raw cow’s milk or more traditionally with a mix of raw milk from cows, sheep and goats that have grazed on the mountains of the Picos de Europa in Asturias. It is matured for 2-5 months in caves aired by cold, damp, salty winds from the Bay of Biscay that create a near constant humidity of 90% and steady temperature of 8-12c, ideal conditions for the growth of the penicillium spores which gives the cheese its characteristic blue-green veins and patches. It is regularly cleaned and turned during ageing, matures from the inside out and is not injected with bacteria. As per its D.O.P., which it has had since 1981, it must contain at least 45% fat so its texture is firm, but also creamy. The story goes that shepherds who spent long months in the mountains with their herds began making this type of cheese as a way of not wasting milk and nowadays it is made on small family farms of the area and so is not produced in huge quantities. It was named the best queso in Spain in 2013.
Tetilla – Galicia
This cheese gets its name from its shape as it looks somewhat like a tit! Tetilla means nipple in Galician/Spanish, which is kinda apt since all cheese comes from a tit in the first place really! Tetilla is a semi-soft variety made from the milk of three breeds of cow that graze on the rich grass of the hills and mountains of NW Galicia; Friesian, Alpine Brown or Rubia Gallega. It is cured for only seven days or at the very most a month and its flavour is mild and buttery. It is often eaten with membrillo, chorizo or jamón serrano. It has had a D.O.P. since 1993.
Mahón – Menorca
Mahón shares its name with the principal town on the Balearic island of Menorca it comes from. In the local dialect of Catalan, menorquí, it is called Maó, and it is one of the very few cheeses not from the Atlantic north of Spain that is made with only cow’s milk. There are a few versions made with a pasteurized cow and sheep milk mix, but the best is the artisanal Mahón made with raw cow’s milk and cured in underground cellars for at least a couple of months and up to two years, sometimes even longer. It is shaped into squares using a special cloth and during the maturity process olive oil and paprika butter are rubbed into the rind for even more flavour. Its texture is quite dense and crumbly and its taste is nutty, buttery and slightly salty. Mahón has had a D.O.P. since 1985.
Torta del Casar – Extremadura
This cheese is different! First of all, the “torta” in the name means “cake” and refers to its form, and “del Casar” refers to its origin: Casar de Cáceres in Extremadura, near the Portuguese border. Torta del Casar was traditionally made in the shape of a small wheel with a fairly thin rind and soft runny centre which would cause the middle to sink as it aged, giving it the appearance of a cake. It is made from the raw milk of Merino and Entrefino sheep and uses the flowers of local Cardoon thistles to curdle the milk, rendering the cheese soft and sticky. It is aged for two months minimum and is eaten by cutting the top of the “torta” like a lid, and then dipping pieces of bread in to scoop out the intensely tasty gooey cheese inside. Or you can just spoon it out and spread it on your bread… Either way, it is ideally accompanied by a glass of porto from nearby Portugal.
Idiazábal – Navarra + Basque Country
Originally produced in the Navarran Pyrenees above Pamplona, this rustic ewe’s milk cheese is today made throughout Navarra and the Basque country from the raw, unpasteurized milk of the Latxa and Carranzana breeds of sheep, cured for two months at least and up to eight, and typically smoked. In the old days it used to be hung in the rafters near the fireplace to protect it from the rain and so would absorb a smoky, woody flavour. Nowadays this intense pale yellow, nutty, buttery cheese is commonly eaten as a pintxo with membrillo or is grated over pasta, and it also beautifully accompanies a full-bodied red wine from nearby Rioja. As you’d expect, Idiazábal also has an EU-recognized D.O.P. and in 2013 it won the Super Gold medal in the World Cheese Awards. It has been declared Patrimonio Gastronómico Europeo (no need to translate that, right?) and is generally considered as one of the very best of Spanish cheeses.
Roncal – Navarra
Another one from Navarra and also made with milk from Latxa sheep, or from Rasa Aragonesa sheep – the second most important sheep breed in Spain after Merino – this cheese comes from one of seven villages in the Roncal Valley that gives it its name. It is a hard cheese with a herby hint to its buttery flavour. Its EU-recognized D.O.P. guarantees that it can only be made using the milk of the two aforementioned sheep breeds. Like Idiazábal, Roncal goes very well with wine – which makes sense, coming from a region so renowned for its wines!
Zamorano – Castilla-León
Also from near the Portuguese border, but further north in Zamora (hence the name), this variety is also made from sheep milk – but there the similarities with Torta de Casar end. It is aged for a minimum of 100 days and often for six months or up to a year, giving it a hard and crumbly texture and a certain sharpness. During aging it is regularly turned and rubbed with olive oil, giving the rind a brownish colour. It used to come under the Manchego umbrella until it was given its own D.O.P. indicating that it comes from further north in Castilla-León and is made with milk from different breeds of sheep, namely Churra and Castellana.
Caña de Cabra – Murcia
Caña de Cabra is a goat’s cheese from Jumilla in Murcia made in the French Bûcheron style, a method of producing soft-ripened goat’s cheese that hadn’t existed in Spain previous to 1978. Murciana goats are known for high-quality and high-fat goat’s milk ideal for cheesemaking and over the years Caña de Cabra cheeses have won a number of awards. Aging takes three weeks, and during this time the flavour sharpens and intensifies and a silky layer of an edible white mold develops on the outside of the “log”. Caña de Cabra has a slightly lemony hint and is especially delicious when baked and served with pine nuts, almonds, figs and honey on top of a salad or on toast, preferably with a crisp, dry white wine.
Majorero – Canarias
Another cheese with a European D.O.P. mark of quality, Majorero from Fuerteventura in Las Canarias is the first Spanish goat’s cheese to be so recognized. There is even a cheese museum dedicated to Majorero on the island now! The breed of goat in question is the Majorera goat, so they didn’t have to think too long and hard when naming this one, although up to a maximum of 15% of the milk used can be from other Canarian sheep. Majorero milk is relatively thick and has a high fat content and this comes through in the pale whitish cheese, rendering it quite pungent. It is commonly eaten as a dessert with something sweet, often membrillo.
Afeuga’l Pitu – Asturias
Afeuga’l Pitu is another high-fat and high-flavour cheese, but for this one we’re back in the Atlantic north of the country, in Asturias. Its name comes from Asturiano and supposedly means either “drown the chicken” or “drown the gullet/larynx” but we won’t go into that here! As well as its unusual name, this cheese is also distinctive in its appearance. It comes in one of two shapes; either in a truncated conical shape from moulds, or else in a round almost pumpkin-like shape from having been tied up in a special type of cloth used to drain the curd. Whatever the shape, the varieties are either orange-red having had paprika added, or almost white without paprika. Check out the D.O.P. website.
Arzúa Ulloa – Galicia
Rich and creamy soft Arzúa-Ulloa cheese is traditionally produced from unpasteurized milk from cows that graze the lush grass along the course of the River Ulla that meanders through central western Galicia, eventually reaching the sea a little north of Pontevedra. The original farmhouse varieties are only produced in small quantities and are hard to find outside the region. Nowadays the industrially produced version is more common and can be made with raw or pasteurised cow’s milk and can range in age anywhere from two weeks to about six months, the colour and flavour intensifying the longer it is aged.
Picón Bejes-Tresviso – Cantabria
From neighbouring Cantabria comes this very flavourful blue cheese made from a mix of cow, sheep and goat milk and is often called by its nickname of “Tres Leches”. (No prizes for figuring that one out!) Protected by a D.O.P. since 1984, its production is restricted to eight municipalities in the Liébana valley. Its texture is compact, yet smooth and its flavour is quite strong and even a little piquante.
Did we say a dozen? Well, of course we meant a “baker’s dozen”! (Really, we just hate having to choose!) And in case you’re about to write a letter of complaint about the lack of Catalan formatges in the list, we decided to bow to the independentistas and list their offerings separately (as a sneaky way of including more cheeses!).
Five favourite Catalan cheeses
Mató is a type of queso fresco that has been popular in both Catalunya and the Balearic Islands since medieval times. It is made from either sheep or goat’s milk and is lower in fat than most cheeses. The traditional method involved boiling the milk and then using thistle flowers or lemon juice to cause it to coagulate and then strained through a special cloth. Nowadays it is produced industrially and cow’s milk is also used. It is not aged but sold when only a couple of days old. It is most commonly consumed with honey (mel in Catalan) as a dessert called mel i mató, which makes perfect sense!
This is another very traditional cheese, and it is uniquely Catalan. Originally from the Catalan Pyrenees, this cheese can be made with pasteurized cow, goat or sheep milk. When the fresh cheese formed, it was then placed into a clay jar called a tupí, a strong (usually aniseed) liquor stirred in and the mixture left to ferment for a couple of months. After fermentation olive oil was sometimes added. Not surprisingly, the resulting flavour would be intense, spicy and tangy and it required no refrigeration (which they didn’t have anyway back then!). It is high in fat and creamy and usually eaten with bread and sometimes honey or tomatoes – and wine, of course!
- Sarró de Cabra
Sarró de Cabra is a traditional goat’s cheese from Moia near Barcelona. It’s made from pasteurized goat’s milk and aged by being tied up inside a cloth for about two months, during which time a grey rind develops on the outside, thus giving it its distinctive shape and appearance – and its name. Sarró is a Catalan word for a type of leather bag that shepherds would typically use to carry food in. Inside its “sarró” this cheese is white and semi-soft with a buttery and slightly citrusy flavour.
Garrotxa is a Catalan semi-soft variety from the area of the same name and is made from the pasteurized milk of the Murciana breed of goats. Almost forgotten about until it was revived by a farmer’s cooperative in the 1980s, it is now produced artisanally. It is usually aged for between four and eight weeks and has a nutty, herbal and mildly acidic flavour. It is often eaten after a meal with fruit or nuts, or as a tapa.
- Queso de la Selva
And so, we round off with the one closest to home. Selva is traditionally made from pasteurized cow’s milk produced in Fornells de la Selva, halfway between Girona airport and the city. It is produced on a small scale with high-quality full fat local milk and aged for about a month. It is straw yellow in colour and smells and tastes buttery and slightly yoghurty. It is sold in sizes of either one or two kilos but should be available in wedges in some shops, and, although not produced on a large scale, at least it should be fairly easy to find on the Costa Brava.
So there you have just some of the many varieties. Now for a few very special individual brands….
With Spanish cheese tending to be overshadowed by its northern neighbour and in an effort to promote Spanish quesos in general and try to boost sales in markets outside their local areas, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has compiled a list of the best five in the country for 2021. All entries are rigorously tested to ensure that the finalists are only of the highest quality, before a jury of connoisseurs then selects one winner in each of five categories of mature cheese.
2021’s results are as follows:
- Best cow’s cheese: ‘Castillo de Pambre‘, from Pok Quesera, Palas de Rei, Lugo (Galicia)
- Best sheep’s cheese: ‘Gran Casar‘ from Quesos del Casar, Cáceres (Extremadura) [see above]
- Best goat’s cheese: ‘Tio Resti‘ from Especialidades Lácteas, Caravaca de la Cruz (Murcia)
- Best mixed cheese: ‘El 5e Sabor Umami‘ from Quesos Cerrato, de Palencia, (Castilla-León)
- Best blue cheese / cheese with mould: ‘Savel‘ from Airas Moniz, Chantada, Lugo (Galicia)
And there’s more! A Spanish queso has recently won the title of Best Cheese in the World according to the 250 experts in the jury of the World Cheese Awards!
The Andalucian goat’s cheese Olavidia was previously chosen as the best cheese in Spain and now ‘Quesos y Besos‘ cheesemakers from Guarromán, Jaén, can also call themselves the best in the world. winning the 33rd edition ahead of 4,000 varieties from 47 countries.
If you would like to check out some Baix Empordà cheesemakers, here are a couple of fine local examples; one in Ullastret and the other in Fonteta. You can find out all the info you need on their websites below:
Recuits Nuri, Ullastret: > website > location
Casa Martell, Fonteta: > website > location
Where to buy
Some of the above cheeses can be bought in most supermarkets, but for other more unique varieties you’ll probably need to check out more specialized shops. Many carnisserias also sell other artisanal products, including queso/formatge, xarcuteria, wine, olive oil and so on, and just about every town will have one or two. Arnall butchers have shops in several Costa Brava towns and are well worth investigating.