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Manchego Cheese : Interesting Facts and Pairing Ideas

In our series of articles on interesting facts and pairing ideas, for different types of cheese, we continue with the Manchego, which is a cheese made in the La Mancha region of Spain and is one of the most widely recognized names in the gourmet cheese marketplace.

Manchego Curado cheeses
Manchego Curado cheeses

Interesting Facts

  1. Manchego originates from the La Mancha region of Central Spain, which is also home of Don Quixote a famous character in a novel by Miguel de Cervantes. Manchego is made entirely from the milk of Manchega sheep an ancient breed that thrives well on the high plains of La Mancha.
  2. To be designated as Manchego, the cheese must be produced in an area that is restricted to designated parts of the provinces of Albacete, Ciudad Real, Cuenca and Toledo and must be aged for a minimum of 30 days for cheeses weighing up to 1.5 kg or 60 days for all others and a maximum of two years.
  3. Manchego cheese is made from both pasteurized and unpasteurized milk. The artisan farmhouse version is produced from unpasteurized milk and the industrial version is produced from pasteurized milk.
  4. Traditionally, Manchego cheese was made by wrapping the cheese with esparto a tough grass, which allowed the cheese to lose the ideal amount of moisture and become firmer during aging, while leaving a distinctive zig-zag pattern on the rind. Today, the zig-zag pattern is produced by the rippled surface of the press used in the manufacture of the cheese.
  5. La Mancha originally named 'Al-Mansha' by the Arabs, which means 'dry land' is unfriendly to cows but suitable for raising goats and sheep. The abundance of wild herbs on La Mancha's grazing lands gives Manchego a special taste and aroma.
  6. A type of sheep called Ovis Aries Ligeriensis was the ancestor of the Manchega sheep. This ancestor crossed the Pyrenees, crossed several Spanish regions (Aragon, Castile and Leon) and eventually settled in the region of La Mancha. It is said that the primitive settlers of La Mancha domesticated the sheep and improved the breed, without allowing it to be mixed with others, hence the breed has maintained its original purity and qualities, as well as its distinct characteristics.
  7. Manchego cheese is low in lactose and high in protein and calcium, and contains vitamins A, D and E which are nutrients essential to metabolic processes such as growth and tissue repair.
  8. Manchego has a slightly salty taste which is achieved during production either by rubbing with dry salt, by immersing the cheese in highly salted water, or by a combination of both methods.

Pairing Ideas

Manchego cheese has a firm and compact consistency with a buttery texture. The inside of the cheese varies from white to ivory in color, depending on how long it was aged. The cheese has a distinctive flavor, well-developed but not too strong, creamy with a tangy flavor, nutty with a slightly salty taste and an aftertaste that is characteristic of sheep’s milk.

Manchego flavors vary depending on the length of aging and accordingly classified as:
  • Semi-Curado aged for around three months has rich but mild flavor with notes of fruit and grass.
  • Curado aged for 6 months acquires a caramel and nutty flavor and a slightly firmer texture.
  • Viejo aged for a year has a crumbly texture, sharper flavor, rich, nutty and sweet with a peppery bite and lingering taste.
Cheese tasting
Cheese tasting
As Manchego ages, it loses moisture and its texture become firmer and more crumbly, while acquiring a sharper taste, more pronounced sweetness and nuttiness. Manchego is a very versatile pairing and can be paired with fruits, nuts such as almonds, hazelnuts and walnuts,  crackers, crusty bread, sun-dried tomatoes, olives, fig spread or lightly drizzled with extra virgin olive oil. An aged Manchego can be eaten on its own, if you enjoy its complex flavor.

Manchego cheese can be paired with beer, wine or whiskey, but the pairing will depend on the age of the Manchego. The important aspect of pairing is to achieve balance of flavor, as the cheese should not overpower the drink or the drink should not bury the flavor of the cheese.

Pairing Manchego and Beer

Manchego Semi-Curado goes well with K├Âlsch, due to their smooth, fruity, crisp body with mild bitterness or a Blonde ale which is a light bodied, balanced and refreshing beer.

As it is aged it acquires a sweet, nutty, and sharper flavor and goes well with malty beers like nut brown ale, stout and porter as the nut and caramel flavors of the beer compliment the aged cheese.

Pairing Manchego and Wine

Manchego Semi-Curado is a good pairing with a Spanish Cava, Tempranillo, young Rioja, or white wines like Verdejo and Rioja Blanco which have citrus and tropical fruit flavors with ample acidity. They also pair well with wines that have good fruit flavors like Merlot or a blend like Meritage.

As it is aged it acquires a sweet, nutty, and sharper flavor and goes well with a fino or manzanilla Sherry, Tawny Port, Riesling, Aged Rioja Blanco, Rioja reserva or gran reserva.

Pairing Manchego and Whiskey

Manchego Semi-Curado is more suited for the lighter style of malt whiskies such as those produced in the Scottish lowlands. These whiskies tend to be smooth and light in character with floral and grassy notes that complement the flavors of a Manchego.

Aged whiskey needs an aged Manchego, which is rich and nutty to stand up to it. An aged whiskey and an aged Manchego share common flavor descriptors such as nutty and sweet which can be used to complement or contrast individual flavors. Additionally depending on the kind of cask a whiskey has been aged, it acquires flavors such as dark fruit from sherry casks or honey from sauternes.

Bourbon whiskey aged in new charred oak barrels tends to have a sweet caramel and vanilla like flavor that complements aged Manchego. Irish whiskies aged in sherry cask are also a good alternative for pairing as they tend to have a smooth finish with dried fruit and hazelnut tones.

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