Cheese Focus: Spain, Off the Beaten Path


Janet Fletcher | 23 Aug 2021

When most consumers think about Spanish cheese, Manchego is probably first on their list. And for many, that’s where any familiarity with Iberian cheese ends. Despite Spain’s wealth of artisan-made wheels, many of them well priced, consumers don’t embrace these products as readily as they do the cheeses of France and Italy. I see this hesitation myself in the relative popularity of my own classes on French, Italian, and Spanish cheeses.

Introducing consumers to off-the-beaten-path Spanish cheeses can be a rewarding endeavor, distinguishing your store’s selection from the competition and showcasing your expertise. Spain’s cheesemakers excel at aged sheep and goat cheeses, ideal for heartier autumn cheese boards and for cross-merchandising with membrillo, Marcona almonds, dried fruit and nut cakes, Spanish wines, and sherries.

Michele Buster of Forever Cheese, one of the most active importers of cheese from Spain, predicts a shortfall in the supply of aged Manchego in the coming months due to a shortage of Manchega milk. No better time, then, to acquaint customers with some of Spain’s lesser-known cheeses. A few standouts:

El Abuelo Ruperto: “Uncle Rupert” is one of Forever Cheese’s newer Spanish imports, a cheese that struggled to launch during the pandemic but is gaining traction now. It’s sublime, a seven-pound farmstead wheel from the raw milk of Lacaune sheep, the same prized breed used for Roquefort. Made in the Rioja region and matured for about eight months, El Abuelo Ruperto “has such sweetness to it,” says importer Buster. Expect aromas of pineapple and roasted nuts and a sweet finish.

Alisios: From the Canary Islands, this mixed-milk wheel (70 percent cow’s milk, 30 percent goat’s milk) resembles Majorero, the islands’ signature goat cheese. An external rub of ruddy Spanish pimentón infuses the paste with an earthy, peppery aroma; the flavor is tangy but with a balancing sweetness. A two-pound wheel matured for about five months, Alisios won a Super Gold at the 2016 World Cheese Awards.

Arzúa-Ulloa: Spain isn’t known for cow’s milk cheeses, but this one is superb, made in Galicia and awarded a PDO in 2010. Weighing only a kilo and matured for just two weeks, the cheese has an oil-rubbed natural rind and a soft, supple, creamy interior. Forever Cheese imports it, and Buster describes it as meaty and satisfying, rounder and fuller in flavor than Tetilla, the better-known but similar cow’s milk cheese from the same area.

Cabra al Gofio: Another new creation from the Canary Islands, this 100 percent goat’s milk wheel is similar to Majorero but smaller (two pounds) and younger (two months). The flavor is sweet, the texture moist, and the aroma reminiscent of dulce de leche. Gofio is a type of corn flour used in the islands’ cooking; the wheels are rubbed with it to give the cross-hatched rind a distinctive appearance.

Los Cameros: From the Rioja region, this mixed-milk stunner incorporates cow’s, goat’s, and sheep’s milk to irresistible effect. Weighing about seven pounds and matured for six months, the cheese smells of brown butter, roasted nuts, and warm cream, and delivers sweet yet tangy flavor.  With its natural rind and pale ivory interior, Los Cameros looks like sheep cheese, but the blend is typically 60 percent cow’s milk. Given the quality and long aging, the wheels is remarkably well priced.

La Dama Sagrada: From the region of La Mancha—home to Manchego—comes this moderately priced gem from raw goat’s milk. The “sacred lady” is a six-pound pressed wheel formed in the same basket-weave molds used for Manchego, so there’s a family resemblance. The creamery releases it at six months, longer than most Manchego, yielding a firm, brittle, yet shaveable interior with those sought-after protein crystals. The aroma is nutty with hints of pale caramel or cajeta, and the flavor is sweet, with a bright, tart finish. This one is hard to stop nibbling.

Etxegarai: Even people who don’t like smoked cheese will enjoy Etxegarai, a delicately smoked Basque wheel made from raw sheep’s milk. A six-pound cheese matured for about six months, it has a subtle wood-fired scent that complements, but doesn’t dominate, the other aromas of lemon and warm butter. The texture is silkier than you might expect in a cheese of this age; it is supple enough to shave with a plane. Say Etch-eh-gah-ray, more or less.

Malvarosa: A remarkably beautiful sheep cheese from the Valencia area, the four-pound Malvarosa is shaped in a cheesecloth bag, giving it a rounded, domelike top with furrows from the cloth. A modern creation developed to use the milk of the endangered Guirra breed, the cheese resembles Manchego but with a more handmade appearance and a sweeter, more buttery flavor. The interior smells like brown butter and lemon cheesecake with a hint of caramel, and the sweet-and-salty finish lures tasters back for another bite. A real crowd pleaser.

Patacabra: This washed-curd goat cheese from the region of Aragón can be a head turner in prime condition, with that room-filling gym-socks aroma. Imagine a goat Taleggio made in the shape of a flattened five-pound log, with a semisoft, pudgy interior. Patacabra is maddeningly inconsistent, but it’s rarely as funky as a ripe Taleggio, with more of a lemon and crème fraîche scent. The handsome reddish rind is thin and crunchy, with streaks of gray mold. The name Patacabra (literally, goat’s hoof) is a whimsical reference to the cheese’s unusual shape.

La Peral: Spain’s best-known blue cheeses—Cabrales, Picón and Valdeón—come from the Asturias region and are notably robust, to put it mildly. La Peral, also from Asturias, is much more gentle, a cow’s milk blue with a dollop of sheep cream to mellow it. Moist, even weepy, the two-pound wheel has a bacon-like scent and a melting texture, with none of the pepperiness that turns some people away from blue cheese. Still made by a single producer, La Peral was created about a century ago by an Asturian gentleman who lived to 106. Perhaps this lovely cheese confers benefits beyond flavor

Related: Cheese Focus: Demystifying Marinated Cheese; Cheese Focus: Cheeses From the Heartland.

Photo: Alisios ©Francesco Sapienza