How to buy the best Manchego cheese – one of the great tastes of Spain

Manchego is the king of Spanish cheeses. It’s one of the great tastes of Spain. But beware – lots of the cheeses on sale in a Spanish charcutería (delicatessen) look the same. So how do you know you’re buying the good stuff, genuine Manchego? Read on….

The genuine article – a whole manchego cheese!

First of all, queso manchego 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).

The manchega sheep that produce the milk for manchego cheese.

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 the local market in Villajoyosa. But no – the milk has to come from the manchega sheep. 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.

The areas covered by the queso Manchego DOP

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?

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?

It’s easy to get confused – it looks similar, and it’s good for everyday, but it’s not genuine Manchego cheese!

First, look for the distinctive main label on the cheese itself. Not surprisingly, it shows Don Quixote and Sancho Panza – the most famous pair ever to come out of La Mancha.

The label you’ll see on genuine Manchego – there’ll be a serial number alongside it too.

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.

‘Artesano’ on the label means it’s made from unpasteurised milk.

But can’t anyone stick labels on their cheese and call it genuine manchego? Yes they could – but there’s a more foolproof way of checking.

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.

The official placa de caseína inserted into the mould as the cheese is made.
You can see the placa de caseína clearly through the rind .

If you’re only buying a pre-wrapped slice, rather than a whole cheese, you’ll see a portion of the placa on the bottom, and the queso manchego label will have a green (sometimes blue) bar on it.

The green bar on the label you’ll find if you’re just buying a slice.

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!).

Semi-curado

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….

Curado

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!

Viejo

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.

A semi-curado Manchego – a creamier texture and milder flavour

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 distinctive pleita pattern of zig zags in the rind.

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!

Traditional manchego cheese making – the cheese is encased in the esparto grass mould, with a flor top and bottom and a weight on top to squeeze out the whey. Source: Dcarrero via wikimedia

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). 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 in the small print.

Fascinating fact!

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:

 

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