Production of Spanish Cheese

Spain has over 100 different cheeses, many made in small artisan quantities according to traditional methods that have been used for centuries. The production of the twenty or so D.O. (Denominacion de Origen) cheeses is tightly controlled with strict regulations as to the milk used, the method of cheese making and the aging of the cheeses. The production process of each one is slightly different, but we’ll take the famous Manchego cheese as an example and describe its production methods.

Genuine Manchego cheese is made only from the whole milk of Manchega sheep raised in the La Mancha region in the centre of Spain. They graze a mixture of fallow land, wheatland and brush fields where wild herbs grow, all of which contribute to the flavour of the finished cheese.

The milk can be unpasteurised in the case of small artisan producers, or pasteurized, which is more usual for the larger industrial producers.

The milk, which must have at least a 6% fat content, is mixed with an enzyme to coagulate it, for which the temperature must be between 28 and 32C. It takes about one hour for the milk to reach a compact curdle.

The curdle is then cut up into small lumps and reheated to about 40C. The liquid is strained off and the remaining dry paste is pressed in moulds. Manchego has a very distinctive pattern on its rind, created by the form of the press, which has a herringbone embossed pattern on the sides to reproduce the effect of the woven esparto grass mats that were traditionally used, and occasionally still are by some artisans. The press also uses wooden boards top and bottom that leave a wheat ear pattern imprinted on the rind.

After several hours of pressing, the outside of the cheese is either rubbed with dry salt or immersed in salt water, sometimes both.

The cheeses are now aged for a minimum of two months in a fresh place with a humidity of 75-85%. Traditionally they would have been cured in natural caves. Over the two months of curing, the rind gradually takes on a golden beige colour and the interior of the cheese becomes firm and pale yellow. Further aging can be carried out, which develops the flavour to a more piquant sharpness.