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Michele Buster of Forever Cheese and Juhl Rachel of Essex St. Cheese Discuss Manchego Insights

Michele Buster of Forever Cheese and Juhl Rachel of Essex St. Cheese Discuss Manchego Insights


SPAIN
Friday, March 10th, 2023

On many cheese boards across the United States, one Spanish cheese stands apart from the rest: Manchego. With many variations of the cheese being imported Stateside, how can consumers differentiate an excellent Manchego from something more generic? It turns out, this is a question all cheese shop owners should be asking, so I turned to the experts to get their take.

Michele Buster, Co-Founder, Forever CheeseManchego is a sheep’s milk cheese that can only come from certain provinces in Castilla La Mancha, Spain, such as Cuenca, Toledo, Albacete, and Ciudad Real, according to the Protected Designation of Origin (PDO),” Michele Buster, Co-Founder of Forever Cheese, told me. “It must be made from 100 percent Manchega sheep’s milk and aged a minimum of 60 days. Otherwise, the presentation, flavor, and style is completely dependent upon the maker’s methods.”

One of the most important aspects of making a high-quality Manchego, As Michele explained, is how often makers collect the milk. She said a good practice for most dairies is to collect the milk and let it sit until they make the cheese the next day. Whether it’s raw or pasteurized, in her opinion, doesn’t make it better or worse—you just get different flavor profiles.

Manchego is a sheep's milk cheese that can only come from certain provinces in Castilla La Mancha, Spain, such as Toledo, Albusete, Cevalbrial, and Quanka, according to the Protected Designation of Origin (Photo credit: Essex St. Cheese and Alison Christiana)

“It’s about their recipe, their touch, their commitment to good ingredients, and what they do with the cheese in the final stages,” Michele added. “You have to look for the flavor and expression of the area, feel that butter fat, and it can’t be overly salty. If you ask what my favorite one is, it’s our six-month Manchego, though we have about 14 different varieties.”

Manchego is a cheese that dates back to the 1500s, as Juhl Rachel, Chief Swag Officer and Education at Essex St. Cheese, explained. The first written record of it is actually in Cervantes’ Don Quixote de la Mancha, when Dulcinea sends a cheese from Manchega sheep back to Don Quixote as a token of her appreciation.

Juhl Rachel, Chief Swag Officer and Education, Essex St. Cheese“Farmstead maker Queseria 1605 wants to bring back the original recipe that was in Don Quixote—a raw milk with a natural rind made from sheep that are grazing its own pastures and fed by local fare,” Juhl stated. “So, in the last 15 years, there’s been a renaissance thanks to these efforts of building a stronger awareness for the cheese. But it’s still very small in comparison to the rest of Manchego industrial production.”

Of the 70 producers of Manchego, she said, about 20 percent are raw milk, and there are only about five producers that are actually farmstead. When Essex started working with Quesaria in the early 2000s, it was one of two farmstead Manchego makers left in all of La Mancha.

So, how can cheesemongers be sure they are getting a true Manchego cheese when it lands in their cooler? Michele and Juhl both explained that a wheel of Manchego can be identified by its markings and labels, including a number on the label that identifies the cheese.

Both experts explained that a lot of cheeses in Spain have Manchego’s characteristic zigzag rind because it mimics when early makers would take the esparto grass in La Mancha and weave it into a mold. So, that rind alone is not an indicator that it’s Manchego cheese. At the same time, not all repack labels make all of the necessary information visible, so it can be difficult.

Of the 70 producers of Manchego, about 20 percent are raw milk, and there are only about five producers that are actually farmstead

Juhl noted another key differentiator, saying, “When you get a whole wheel of Manchego and look at one side of it, there are round PDO casein stamps that get put on fresh cheese before it gets pressed. They put several stamps on the bottom of the wheel, so that if you cut six pieces, you could get a little piece of that seal on each one.”

On a final note, Michele emphasized that a pressing challenge exists in the Manchego segment—one she is actively working against to ensure the viability of the cheese.

“What we are challenged with today is that there’s never enough shepherds/milk farmers in La Mancha” she divulged. “There’s not enough people who want to go into this business, so it creates a pricing challenge.”

Deli Market News will continue taking a deep dive into prominent cheeses making their mark on the specialty department, so stay tuned.

Forever CheeseEssex St. Cheese
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