History of Spanish Cheese

The origins of cheese making are lost in the mists of time, perhaps 8000 years ago, but it is widely supposed to have originated in the Middle East with milk transported in saddlebags by nomads, who found that it turned into curds and whey as they traveled, with the coagulating effects of the rennin in their animal stomach saddlebags.

The Romans are credited with having developed cheese-making techniques to a sophisticated level, which they certainly would have brought to Spain when they colonised it in the 2nd century BC. However cheeses were being produced even before their arrival and archaeologists have discovered evidence of a cheese very similar to Manchego cheese being produced several centuries BC.

Each region of Spain would have evolved their own styles of cheese, according to the terrain, the type of animal that thrived there, and the climate. A wide range of sheep’s milk cheeses developed over the years in Spain’s dry interior, while the richer pastures and green mountains of the Northern coast and some of Spain’s islands, in more recent history, began to produce creamy cow’s milk cheeses. Throughout history the goat has been the poor man’s source of dairy, and fresh goats’ cheese for immediate consumption would have been made all over Spain.

The industrialization of food production in the last two centuries initially had little effect on the best known Spanish cheeses, which continued to be produced by farmers and artisans, as they had been for hundreds of years. However Franco’s dictatorship, after the Spanish Civil War, outlawed the production of artisan cheeses in the name of modernization and industrial quotas. Some artisans went underground and continued to make their cheeses in remote mountain valleys, but other cheeses disappeared completely. It was only after Franco’s death in 1975 that Spain was able to revive the traditional artisan cheese-making methods and rediscover her best-loved cheeses.

In the 1980’s when Spain was in the process of joining the European Union, it started introducing the Denominacion de Origen classification to its premium food products. This controls the quality and traditional characteristics of the food in question. There are now over 20 cheeses listed as either D.O. or D.O.P. with more being added over time, as other well-loved regional cheeses apply for the protection of this classification.