Queso Manchego (or simply called Manchego) hails from the Castile La Mancha region in Spain, a massive 30 000 square-mile plateau almost 2000 feet high. Often called Spain’s most renowned origin variety cheese, Manchego was initially made famous by the 17th century novel, Don Quixote, written by Miguel de Cervantes.
Even though the exact date of origin is unknown, some say cheesemaking in the La Mancha region goes as far back as the Bronze Age!
What is Manchego Cheese?
Manchego Cheese is made from the milk of Manchega sheep, a breed native to the La Mancha region. It’s a semi-hard, buttery cheese with a distinctive zigzag pattern on its inedible wax rind. The cheese’s interior is firm and dense, with the color ranging from white to ivory-yellow. It has a rich, salty taste with a distinctive nutty flavor.
What is the Protected Designation of Origin (PDO)?
While Manchego cheese has been produced in the La Mancha region for hundreds (if not thousands) of years, it only gained its official Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status in 1984.
The PDO regulations, set forth by the EU, stipulate that for cheese to be given the name Manchego, it needs to satisfy the following conditions:
Authentic Manchego cheese is marked with a numbered plaque on the rind, indicating that the traditional production methods were adhered to.
How Is Manchego Cheese Made?
Manchego cheese can be made from both pasteurized (commercial factory production) and unpasteurized (farm production) milk. Cool milk is poured into heated vats, where cultures (various Lactococcus lactis species) and rennet (a curdling enzyme) are added while stirring. This causes the milk to curdle and firm up.
The milk curds are cut and separated from the excess liquid (whey), and left to drain. They are then packed into molds, where they are left to drain once more from any excess whey.
Before they’re ready for the aging process, the cheeses are soaked in brine. Once removed from the brine, they’re transported to the drying room where they’re brushed with a layer of olive oil (which seals in moisture and flavor) and left to age for a minimum of two weeks.
Historically, Manchego cheese was formed in esparto grass molds with a design known as pleita. The grass gives it a distinct zigzag pattern, while at the same time drawing away excess moisture and imparting an herbaceous aroma. While artisan cheese makers still use grass molds, modern producers use specially designed plastic molds with the same design.
Different Kinds of Manchego Cheese
Depending on the length of the ripening period, you’ll find four different varieties of Manchego:
- 2 weeks – fresco
At this stage, the fresh cheese has very little aging character. The flavor is rich, but still very mild. Because of the short ripening period, it’s rare to find a Manchego fresco outside of Spain.
- 3 weeks to 4 months – semicurado
The cheese becomes slightly firmer. While the taste is still mild, it becomes nuttier with subtle grassy undertones. The texture is smooth and creamy.
- 3 to 6 months – curado
The cheese is semi-firm, with a slightly spicier taste. The nutty and caramel flavors become more pronounced.
- 1 to 2 years – Viejo
The aged cheese is solid and crumbly, with a butterscotch color. The flavor is intense with a slight peppery undertone, but the taste remains sweet and lingering.
What Does Manchego Cheese Taste Like?
The flavor of Manchego cheese is almost what you’d expect from a sheep’s milk cheese: salty, buttery, and nutty. In comparison to other sheep and goat’s milk cheeses, however, Manchego is rather mild.
It has a distinctive creaminess that lingers on your palate for a while. It’s these attributes that make Manchego one of the more popular sheep’s milk cheeses for American palates. In fact, before Manchego came on the scene a few decades ago, sheep’s milk cheese was hardly known in America (with the exception of Italian Pecorino Romano).
If you find cow’s milk cheese too bland, but don’t like the gaminess of goat’s cheese, then Manchego is the perfect balance between the two.
Manchego Cheese Substitutes
Because Manchego is such a delicately balanced cheese, you won’t find something exactly like it. But luckily, there are contenders that come close.
1) A slightly aged Monterey Jack will have a creamy taste, similar to Manchego. It’s an easy-to-eat cheese, is more readily available, and also more affordable!
2) For a more authentic substitute, especially for a well-aged Manchego, try Pecorino Romano. It’s crumbly, with a distinctive nutty (some might say gamy) flavor.
3) If it's lingering sweetness you're after, look for a French Comte. While it's not a sheep's milk cheese (it's made from cow's milk), the cheese has a rich aftertaste with just the right amount of sweetnedd.
4) Asiago cheese is another cow's milk cheese is another cow's milk cheese that makes a great substitute for Manchego; smooth creamy, with a crumbly texture.
Manchego Cheese Pairings
As Manchego cheese ages, the flavor becomes more pronounced, making it a delicious pairing with honey and fruit preserves. It’s traditionally served with Membrillo, a quince paste that pairs perfectly with the buttery taste of Manchego.
Together with bread, olives, sundried tomatoes, and chorizo, it will make an unforgettable cheeseboard!
Manchego cheese’s nutty flavor and slight tang makes it a perfect match for robust red wines. Try it with Spanish reds like Rioja or Valdepeñas, or an Italian Chianti.
It also pairs well with sherry and sweet, fortified wines. If you cannot find any of these wines in your local store, you can pair it with any dry reds wine like Cabernet Sauvignon or Shiraz.
Where To Buy Manchego Cheese
Authentic Manchego is available from most local cheese mongers or delicatessens. If you don’t find it in a store near you, look for online retailers who specialize in artisan foods, like iGourmet, Murray’s Cheese, or the Gourmet Foodstore.
Cheese labelled as “Manchego style” will look and taste similar to authentic Manchego, but due to the PDO regulations, it cannot legally be labelled Manchego. To make sure you get the real deal, look for a PDO label, or a numbered plaque imprinted on the rind that verifies its credentials.
How Long Does Manchego Cheese Last?
Generally, hard cheeses last longer than softer ones, but they won’t stay fresh forever. Manchego cheese is best eaten within two weeks of being cut, but if you store it well, it will last up to four weeks, with slight diminishing of flavor and complexity.
The cheese is prone to drying out, so even if you buy it packaged in paper wrap, it’s a good idea to store in a zipped plastic bag to avoid further drying.
If you see small spots of blue or green mold, you can simply scrape these off, but keep in mind that it might be a sign that the expiry date is around the corner!
If you’ve been looking to expand your palate without going all out, then Manchego cheese might just be the one to try. The mild, nutty taste is balanced with just the right amount of sweetness that will please everyone’s taste buds.
Have you tried Manchego yet? If so, let us know what you think in the comment section below!
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- Thorpe, L. (2017). The Book of Cheese: The Essential Guide to Discovering Cheeses You'll Love. Flatiron Books
- Herbst, S.T. (2007). The Cheese Lover’s Companion. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.