Cheese production has always been the standard way of preserving milk. The more than 200 types of cheeses that exist in Spain today form part of the historical legacy left behind by the many peoples and cultures that have inhabited its territories. For the ancient Romans, cheese was an important addition to the basic diet of cereals and vegetables, and an essential food for farmers and soldiers because it was easy to transport.
The tremendous variety of Spanish cheeses stems from Spain’s geographical and climatic diversity. They are made from the milk of cows, ewes, and goats, as well as different blends of these, and in most cases the milk is obtained from native breeds. Coagulation may be by enzymes, lactic acid or mixed, and cheeses may be round or square, of different sizes, and with rinds of different colors – often engraved and sometimes smoked, rubbed with oil or flavored with spices. Alongside large-scale industrial production, there are also small dairies producing artisan cheeses that retain their authentic characteristics and traditional flavors.
Sheep's milk cheeses from Spain
Sheep are the most authentic livestock in Spain. They mostly inhabit the Castilian plains in central Spain and the south-west, where there is plenty of pasture, especially during winter and spring. The best-known native breeds are Churro, Merino, Castellano and Manchego, all of which were traditionally reared for their wool, but today are mostly used for the production of cheese. Some of the most important Spanish cheeses are Manchego Zamorano, Torta de la Serena and Torta del Casar, all of which are covered by Protected Denominations of Origin (PDO) status.
In the mountains of northern Spain in Basque Country and Navarre, there are two other types of ewes’ milk cheeses with PDO guarantees, Idiazabal and Roncal, both made from more unusual native breeds – Latxa and Carranzana (PDO Idiazabal) and Latxa and Rasa Aragonesa (PDO Roncal).
Northern Spanish cow's milk cheeses
The rainy, mountainous strip along the northern coast of Spain, separated from the rest of the peninsula by the Picos de Europa, Montes de Galicia and the Pyrenees, is a land of pastures and cultivated grasslands which provide fodder for more than 15 native cattle breeds, all of which are perfectly adapted to their natural surroundings.
There are many remote spots that are difficult to reach, and their geographical isolation has led to an extraordinary wealth of different types of cheeses. In the Principality of Asturias alone, there are more than twenty different varieties. Many of the cows’ milk cheeses in northern Spain are protected by PDO status, including Tetilla in Galicia, and L’Alt Urgell and La Cerdanya in Catalonia. On the island of Menorca, the northernmost of the Balearic Islands, a cows’ milk cheese known as Mahón-Menorca is also covered by a PDO.
Butter is another typical product in the north of Spain and some butters, like Mantequilla de Soria and those made in L’Alt Urgell and La Cerdanya, have PDO status.
Goat cheeses from Spain
Goats are able to eat plants and pastures that are inaccessible to other farm animals. In Spain, they are mostly reared in the austere landscapes along the Mediterranean coast, in the mountains of Andalusia and in parts of Extremadura. Different native breeds and crossbreeds are used. Two PDO goat's milk cheeses are Ibores, which is made in the Extremadura district of the same name using Retinta goat's milk, and Murcia al Vino, made from the milk of the Murcian goat and then soaked in red wine.
There are two Canary Islands goat's cheeses with PDO protection: Palmero, from the island of La Palma, and Majorero from Fuerteventura. They are similar, but Palmero cheeses are usually smoked.
Mixed-milk cheeses from Spain
All three types of milk are produced in Spain virtually year round. Flocks often include mixed breeds, so cheeses are often made from mixed milk, especially in central Spain. Such cheeses, normally cylindrical in shape, are those which reach the highest production and consumption figures. The most popular of the mixed-milk cheeses is Ibérico, which is mild but has a clearly-defined flavor with a touch of acidity from the high proportion of cow's milk, slight piquancy from the goat's milk and buttery flavors and aromas from the ewe's milk.
In the impressive Picos de Europa mountains, which include border areas between the regions of Cantabria, Asturias and Castile-León, several blue, soft-paste cheeses are produced. This mountainous terrain in the north of Spain, close to the Bay of Biscay, is home to natural caves that offer exactly the right degree of humidity and cold air for the external development of the molds which gradually penetrate the cheese, giving it its characteristic blue veining. The best known of such cheeses is PDO Cabrales, which is made on the Asturian side of the Picos from raw cow's milk to which a little goat's and ewe's milk is added in spring and summer. Others include PDO Picón Bejes-Tresviso and PDO Valdeón, made respectively on the Cantabrian and León sides of the mountain range.
The tremendous variety of Spanish cheeses stems from Spain’s geographical and climatic diversity. They are made from the milk of cows, ewes, and goats, as well as different blends of these, and in most cases the milk is obtained from native breeds.