The story of Don Quixote takes place in La Mancha, a hot, arid plain in south central Spain. The novel mentions cheese 13 times, and the cheese on Don Quixote's mind was Manchego (Mon-CHAY-goh), one of Spain's iconic cheeses.
Manchego is a cheese from the La Mancha region of Spain. When the Moors lived here, they named the area "Al Mansha", which means "waterless land", but Manchego cheese predates even the Moors. Archaeologists have found evidence of Manchego cheese production in La Mancha dating from before the time of Christ.
This high, flat, arid region is home to the Manchega breed of sheep, which graze on native scrub brush.
Manchego cheese is traditionally made from unpasteurised Manchega sheep's milk. Today, most Manchego is factory made from pasteurized milk, but the milking is still done by hand.
Wheels of Manchego are about 9 inches across, 5 inches thick, and weigh about 7 pounds. The rind can range in color from brownish-beige to dark brown.
Manchego's rind has a distinctive zigzag pattern.
Traditionally, Manchego cheese was made by wrapping the curds in plaited esparto grass. Modern Manchego uses plastic molds imprinted with the pattern.
The impressions harbor mold easily, so wheels of Manchego are scrubbed and waxed before being sold. The rind won't hurt you if you eat it. The cheese has a nutty, buttery quality, and the nutty character increases as the cheese ages. I'm reminded of Brazil nuts and brown butter.
Manchego cheese smells like lanolin. The texture is a little oily, and the finish is slightly salty. The interior paste of the cheese is white to ivory/yellow, often with small unevenly distributed air pockets. The texture is firm and dry, and Manchego grates well and melts well. Try it on roasted squash.
Most Manchego I see in stores is about six months old, and that's when this cheese starts to develop a nutty flavor. Try making a simple salad of Manchego and Granny Smith apples with some olive oil, lemon juice (or apple cider vinegar), salt, and chives.
Manchego's flavor really takes off when it has aged for a year. Unfortunately, the price for one year old Manchego also increases significantly. If you are serving the cheese by itself, I think that the superior flavor is worth the addition money.
Can you buy a six month old Manchego and age it in your refrigerator for six more months? I don't know - maybe. Ask me in a few months and I'll tell you how it turns out.
Manchego is easy to pair with beer and wine.
Sheep cheeses in general are easy to pair with beer and wine, but I think that Manchego goes particularly well with Brown ale or Oktoberfest beer. There's a nuttiness to these beers that mirrors the nutty flavor in the cheese.
Wine drinkers will want to try Manchego with a Spanish red from Rioja or Ribera del Duero, both of which are Tempranillo based. Look for a crianza. The hint of vanilla that theses wine get from oak barrel aging plays off of the cheese's nuttiness.
If you are serving Manchego on a cheese board, the traditional accompaniment is membrillo, a quince fruit paste. Quince look like yellow pears and quince bruise easily, so they are usually cooked. The flesh turns red when cooked, and quince is high in pectin, so that is why membrillo is red and firm. Manchego also goes nicely with a cherry compote.