Manchego is the king of Spanish cheeses. It’s one of the great tastes of Spain and one of my favourites.
But beware – lots of the cheeses on sale in a Spanish charcutería (delicatessen) look very much the same. To make sure you find the genuine article, here’s how to buy the best manchego cheese.
So what makes a queso manchego different? First of all, it has to be made from sheep milk, which gives it a distinctive flavour. But not just any old sheep – the genuine article has to be from the manchega breed (la raza manchega).
Manchego in Spanish means ‘from La Mancha’ – Don Quixote country, which covers a huge area of the high plateau of central Spain. Not surprisingly, plenty of people think that as long as the cheese is from La Mancha, then it’s manchego cheese.
I thought that myself until I got a crash course in queso manchego from our friend Ramón at Villajoyosa market. But no – the milk has to come from the manchega sheep breed. It’s the sheep that’s important, not just the place!
OK, yes, geography has a role to play too. Genuine queso manchego is protected by a DOP (Denominacion de Origen Protegida) which means it must come from these four areas in the province of Castilla-La Mancha – Toledo, Cuenca, Ciudad Real or Albacete.
But you can still have cheese from these places which isn’t genuine manchego – because it’s not from the right breed of sheep. Still with me?
How to tell the difference in the shop!
OK, so you’re in the shop, confronted by a line of round hard cheeses, all with that patterned rind typical of Spain and they all look much the same.
To be fair, plenty of them are pretty good cheeses and a lot cheaper than genuine manchego. They’re the kind you use every day for sandwiches (bocadillos) or snacks. But proper queso manchego has a distinctive taste all its own.
So if you do want the really good stuff, how do you tell manchego from the rest?
First, look for the distinctive main label on the cheese itself. Not surprisingly, it shows Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, the most famous duo ever to come out of La Mancha.
Underneath it says ‘QUESO MANCHEGO’ and there’s a serial number. If the cheese is made from raw milk (rather than pasteurized) then it’ll say artesano too, because the flavour is more intense as the extra bacteria in unpasteurized milk does its job.
You’ll also see a separate circular red and yellow label, the mark of the DOP.
But can’t anyone stick labels on their cheese and call it genuine manchego? Well, yes they could – but there’s a more foolproof way of checking.
Placa de caseina – a cheese watermark
Each wheel of manchego cheese has a kind of circular watermark in the rind, called the placa de caseína. It will say ‘DOP Queso Manchego’ and have a serial number. It’s put in when the cheese is made, so it’s really difficult to cheat! Look at the bottom of the cheese and you’ll see it through the translucent rind.
If you’re only buying a pre-wrapped slice, rather than a whole cheese, you’ll see a portion of the placa de caseina on the bottom, and the queso manchego label will have a green (sometimes blue) bar on it.
OK, so now you know you’re buying the genuine article. But we’re not quite done yet!
There are three classes of queso manchego to choose between: Semi-Curado, Curado and Viejo. This is all about the length of time the cheese has matured. The longer it takes, the more intense the flavour (and the higher the price!).
Matured from 1-3 months, depending on its size (though it can be longer, according to the cheesemaker’s choice). It has a creamier colour, a softer texture and a milder flavour than….
Matured for between 6 and 9 months, which gives the cheese a darker colour and a nuttier, more caramel-like taste. It’s less oily than a semi too. My preferred choice!
Matured for longer than 9 months. An even darker tone and more intense taste.
Yes, you can get semi/curado/viejo classifications on other cheeses, but that doesn’t make them manchego.
In most good cheese shops in Spain, you can ask to try a thin slice just to make sure you’re getting the cheese that suits your palate. Just ask ‘me puede cortar una rodaja por favor?’
Why the pattern in the rind?
A whole manchego cheese is encased in a distinctive patterned rind, or corteza, which dates from the way the cheese was made in years gone by.
The cheesemaker would pour the curds into a mould made from plaited esparto grass – the pleita – which left a natural zig-zag imprint on the cheese itself. Then a wooden board (the flor) would be placed top and bottom of the wheel of cheese. Its distinctive pattern would let the liquid whey drain out as the cheese was pressed and matured.
The esparto moulds are long gone, but the traditional patterns remain. But beware – lots of other non-Manchego dairies use exactly the same zig-zags in their cheeses too. The pattern does not make it manchego!
Can you eat the rind?
If it’s genuine Manchego, probably yes. Check first – it should say somewhere on the label ‘corteza comestible’ or ‘corteza natural’ if it’s edible (and no comestible if it’s not). However, I usually cut the rind off, as for me it doesn’t add anything to the taste.
Most non-Manchego hard cheeses will have plastic rinds which you definitely shouldn’t eat. All Spanish cheeses should have the comestible/no comestible warning somewhere, but it’s often buried in the small print.
There’s one further complication – Mexican Manchego! Mexico produces what it says is Manchego cheese, but it doesn’t come from La Mancha or from the Manchega sheep. It’s actually made from cow’s milk! Shock! Horror!
This isn’t an issue if you live in Europe, as it can’t legally be sold here, but it might be if you’re from North or South America.
The cheese making tradition was imported from Spain centuries ago, but Mexican Manchego is definitely not the real thing. Spain and Mexico have been arguing about this for years and they’re still nowhere near agreement.
Watch this great little YouTube video that shows you exactly how a fine Manchego cheese is made.
© Guy Pelham
If you’d like to know more about the best of Spanish food, check out these posts:
- How to buy the best jamón in Spain
- More than just chorizo! How to find your way around a Spanish delicatessen
- More than just paella – how to choose the tastiest rice dish
- Choosing the best fish in Spain
- How to find your way around a Spanish seafood menu
- Choosing the best meat in Spain