Issue No. 44: Essex Manchego

Four hundred years ago to the year, in 1615, Miguel de Cervantes published the second edition of Don Quixote de la Mancha. The world’s first novel has a couple dozen references to cheese, and you can bet that Cervantes was thinking of a cheese we’d recognize today as Manchego. Manchego was made in the La Mancha region of Spain from the milk of Manchega sheep long before anyone imagined a wandering knight tilting at windmills.

I wonder, though, what Cervantes would think of most of the Manchego on the market today. In his day, the cheese would have been made by shepherds using the milk from their own flocks of sheep. Today nearly all of it is made in huge batches using milk trucked in from many farms. Most of the time, after the milk is pooled together it is pasteurized (a process which wasn’t invented until two centuries after Cervantes’ death). Pasteurization makes cheesemaking easier to some extent but also cooks off some of the milk’s sweetness, damages its rich, creamy texture, and kills the microflora that can create subtler flavors. One more change is that nearly all Manchego made today has a rind that’s covered with wax—more on that in a minute.

One notable exception to this trend toward bigger batches and increased industrialization is Manchego from Finca la Solana, which we know as Essex Manchego after the importers and selectors, Essex Street Cheese. Essex Manchego is made on an estate in the arid, hilly heart of La Mancha using the unpasteurized milk of a single flock of Manchega sheep. The cheese is made just a couple hundred yards away from where the sheep graze and bleat. And perhaps most significantly, Essex Manchego is one of just three Manchegos made in Spain with an unwaxed rind.

Leaving a rind unwaxed has enormous implications for flavor and texture.

Covering the rind of a wheel or block of cheese with wax holds moisture in the cheese as it ages. That’s good for the expense accounts, because otherwise that moisture would evaporate—and with it, as the weight of the cheese decreased, a bit of the profit would evaporate, too. Wax can also help prevent the rind of the cheese from cracking or growing mold, and it keeps away any cheese mites—teeny tiny critters that like to hang out in cheese caves and chow down on cheese. (That might sound creepy, but while mites are annoying to cheese makers they’re not dangerous to cheese eaters.) However, wax also locks in harsh flavors released by the active cultures in the cheese. Unwaxed cheeses are able to breathe, which allows them to develop deeper, more complex flavors and rid themselves of any acidic bite. Molds that grow on an unwaxed rind are actually a good thing—they’re totally natural and can even help with the flavor development. You might notice a bit of grey mold on the rind of Essex Manchego at home, and if that happens you can just brush it off with a washcloth. It’s safe.

Originally Manchego was made in baskets woven from esparto grass, which grows wild across the dusty plains of southern Spain and northern Africa. (Esparto grass was also traditionally used to make espadrille shoes—hence the name.) Today plastic cheese molds have been designed to emulate the woven ridges of those baskets. Given the stink the FDA raised last year about cheeses aged on wooden boards, I can only imagine the field day they’d have with cheese shaped in grass baskets! To make Essex Manchego, the cheese curds are put into those molds by hand, and then they’re pressed to remove excess whey. After that, the molds are removed, the cheese is dipped in a salt water brine, and then it begins aging. Nothing else is added to create the rind—it’s simply the naked curd, dried with exposure to air. That means that, if you want to, you can eat the rind of Essex Manchego. It’s dry enough that I usually don’t, but there’s nothing harmful about it.

In May I had the chance to visit the farm where Essex Manchego is made.

After meeting the sheep, tasting the fresh, still-warm unpasteurized milk (exceptionally sweet and creamy, almost like melted ice cream), and seeing the cheesemaking process, we sat down to taste through half a dozen batches of cheese. Each batch was made on a different day. Cheeses made with raw milk from a single herd can be significantly different depending on the season, the weather, or other changing conditions that vary day by day. In the tasting, we noticed clear differences across the different batches, with textures ranging from creamy to crumbly, and flavors ranging from cauliflower to pancake batter to sour green apple.

The wheels we’re cutting into now were made on February 11, 2015. They’re incredibly savory, with big brothy and toasty notes, like a bowl of beef noodle soup with a hunk of just-baked crusty bread. Those rich, roasty notes are balanced with a bit of lactic, yogurty tang. The texture is super creamy on the tongue, with just a hint of crunchy crystallization. To get the full flavor of the cheese, we taste them at room temperature—and that’s the best way to taste your cheese at home, too. Better yet, taste it with some cured ham, a handful of nuts, some figs, and a glass of dry sherry.