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Max Abroad : The Best of Spain

Quite simply writing about the best things Spain has to offer and anything that might crop up along the way. Spain is a lot more than just sun, sand and sea...

The Definitive Cheese Guide - Part 2
18 February 2015 @ 12:10

Continued from part 1......

 

TIPS FOR BUYING AND EATING :


To offer a wide variety of cheeses in an optimum state for consumption, that are appealing to the eye, and are at the appropriate temperature is no easy task. This requires expertise and great enthusiasm. Thus, conventional retail is not always the best option, since this cannot always be provided. That is why it is always best to seek out a specialist.

For example, it is good to keep in mind that craft cheeses made from raw milk will vary slightly in their organoleptic properties throughout the year and there are times when these properties are better evinced.

This is the case of the Quesucos from Liébana, creamier in autumn, winter and spring. The best torta cheeses are available from December to June. However, if there has been a good autumn, they can be eaten from late October.

Blue cheeses from the Picos de Europa mountains reach their peak in summer, autumn and early winter. When goat and sheep’s milk is more readily available (in spring and late summer), ripened cheeses become greasier and develop more aromas and flavours.
Goat cheeses from Extremadura and Andalusia are more buttery and exquisite from November until July.

The key to providing good service is to spend time becoming well trained, gaining knowledge and learning how to care for cheese, visiting dairies, cheese fairs and even spending extensive time with cheesemakers in France, Italy, Switzerland, or England, where there are highly skilled professionals.

With solid training and good sources of information, a decision can be made on which supplier is best suited and cheeses may be rejected that do not have the characteristics required. It is also possible to learn which cheeses are seasonal and other very important variables.

And when should cheese be eaten? It can be eaten throughout the day. In Spain, unlike in France, it is not customary to eat cheese as a dessert, but rather as an appetiser. Both options are good as long as we know which type of cheese we are selecting and how to combine it with the rest of the dishes.

In any case, the world of cheese in Spain has experienced such an amazing revolution in recent years that consumer habits are changing drastically and rigid rules are no longer valid. What we should however celebrate is the fact that there is a growing interest in this product, especially craft cheeses, which are opening the door to new consumers.

 

PRACTICAL TIPS

When purchasing cheese, it is a good idea to recognise its most representative features: the type of rind, the colour of the cheese on cutting into it, the type of eyes if there are any, the texture, and the characteristic aromas and flavours.

Cheese should be understood as a living product, one that evolves over time. Also, cheeses derived from raw milk always display slight differences depending on the time of year, due to the climate and changes in feed, especially in the case of animals that graze on pastures.

Therefore, we should understand the stage of development that the cheese is at when we make the purchase and determine how it might evolve and how long it will keep.
This will all depend on a range of factors that are good to know, enabling an informed decision on consumption.

The following practical pointers will help you to select the best cheeses, considering the following aspects:

 

The rind

The rind will reveal the status of the ageing process in the cheese, especially in softer ones and will serve as a guide in terms of the conditions the cheese was ripened under, if it has undergone any treatment (paprika, oil, wine, etc.).

Many of Spain’s pressed cheeses either have a natural rind, brushed and smeared with oil or lard, or a plastic rind in a variety of colours, etc. The latter is for purely aesthetic reasons and hardly affects the texture or flavour of the cheese. These are Spain’s great sheep’s milk cheeses: Manchego, Zamorano, Idiazábal, Castellano, etc.

In craft cheeses, the natural flora that blooms on the rind impose their own personality and contribute to the specific aromas and flavours that develop.

In soft cheeses, the microbial flora in the rind (mould, bacteria and yeast) play a major role in defining their texture, smell and flavour.

 

Naturally-treated rind

In certain cheeses, the rind is treated to prevent the development of mould or insect larvae.
This is the case with certain Extremadura goat cheeses, which are covered in a blend of Vera paprika and oil.

Cheeses from the Canary Islands (Majorero, Gran Canaria) tend to use roasted maize wheat and paprika, which gives them a toasted flavour with hints of spices.

In the case of Murcia wine cheese, it is washed or marinated in red Jumilla wine, giving the rind the reddish violet colour as well as very subtle fruity aromas.

Lard has also been a good cheese protector, preventing drying or oxidation. It is very frequently used in many sheep’s milk cheeses with long ageing processes. (Grazalema, Manchego, Zamorano, Castellano).

In recent years a trend has developed to cover the cheeses in aromatic herbs (thyme, rosemary, etc..) and spices (pepper). This has contributed to extending the vast number of varieties available.

 

Rind of smoked cheeses

The intensity of the brown colour in the cheese rind gives away the amount of smoking carried out during treatment. A dark coloured rind gives off a toasted and tar-like smell.
The lighter the tone of brown, the less smoking it will have undergone and the less intense the cheese will be.

Good smoked cheeses have a light brown rind and give off a pleasing and pungent aroma. The toasty hints of smoke should be barely noticeable and in any case they should be perceived at the end in a subtle way.

 

Moist rind with remelo

Moist rinds indicate a soft and/or semi-soft texture, meaning that the cheese was ripened in an enclosed environment with high humidity levels.

Some cheeses with this type of rind undergo continuous washing and sobaos or “handling” with water (Acehúche). They are popularly known as “smelly” cheeses, due to the somewhat foul smell they give off, although this is later not noticed in the flavour. The region of the Sierra de San Pedro mountains is the only place where this cheese is referred to as “smelly”. They feature an orangey yellow colour and a type of remelo or sticky substance in the rind resulting from the bacteria (Brevibacterium linens) that may be added to the milk through special cultures or may develop on their own during the constant washing.

During ripening, they undergo intense fermentation where their texture becomes soft and they develop a certain putrid flavour, which many cheese-lovers consider to be delicious.

These are cheeses that evolve quickly and take on a flavour of ammonia over time, especially if the texture is soft and they are not kept at a low temperature (4-6º C). Thus a strong smell of ammonia indicates an advanced level of ageing.

In caves, where there is a high level of atmospheric humidity, the rinds of some cheeses (Cabrales, Picón Bejes-Tresviso, Aracena, Sierra de Espadán) are also covered with a viscous remelo and other surface flora of various colours (bluish greens, whites, browns, etc..)

 

Moist or bloomy rind

White and green Penicillium moulds are the surface flora of soft and semi-soft cheeses and contribute to the development of specific aromas and flavours. In some cases, they are also covered in ash or an activated charcoal.

These cheeses are consumed in three stages of ripening: young, when the border is not very pronounced and is light beige; medium, when the inside takes on a beige tone; and mature, when it has a strong ammonia-like smell.

When young, the rind is aromatic and edible with hints of vegetable and fungi (oyster mushrooms, button mushrooms). It has a bright and somewhat shiny colour. Over time it gets darker and more wrinkled and the colour dulls. Then the flavour is very strong and bitter with unpleasant spicy flavours.

 

Natural, cellar-type rind

Many hard and semi-hard craft cheeses feature a naturally dark moist rind that ranges from bluish green in the younger ones (Garrotxa) to brownish-grey or brown in more developed cheeses.

Such cheeses have a lot of personality, they are very buttery on the palate and are very complex in terms of flavour.

If you wish to eat the rind, you can scrub it with water to remove the mould. Beat an egg and add the chopped up pieces of rind. Then fry them in a lot of olive oil and serve them as an appetiser.

 

Brushed and waxy rind

Traditional and craft semi-hard and hard cheeses also tend to be clean, yellow, waxy and shiny. This should not be confused with the painted plastic coverings and anti-fungals that some factory-produced cheeses are given.

In the case of young cheeses (Arzúa-Ulloa, Cantabria, Garmillas), a short ripening period and intense airing out prevents the growth of mould.

In mature cheeses (Idiazábal, Manchego, Zamorano), the rinds are washed vigorously to remove the mould covering them and they are later dried at room temperature for several hours.

In other types of cheeses, the rind is brushed to remove the mould and the surface level flora and to give them a “cleaner” appearance when sold.

They usually contain some mould still but much less and the rind in general has an elegant appearance, indicating high quality.

 

The inside: appearance when cut

Once the cheese is cut in half, you can begin to discover more about it: the animal milk it is derived from, the approximate ageing time, how the ripening was carried out, the care it received, if it was well made or preserved well, etc.

 

The colour of the cheese’s interior

Young cheeses derived from cow’s milk are pale yellow-white and after a few minutes of being cut open the yellow colour darkens. (Tetilla, Garmillas, Cantabria, Arzúa-Ulloa, etc.)

The cheeses derived from the milk of animals that graze on the pastures have a more intense yellow colour due to the carotenes present in the grass. (organic craft Mahón cheeses from spring to early summer).

In more cured cheeses, the yellow is more intense and can even be considered orange in the mature Mahón types.

Cheeses with a predominantly acidic coagulation reveal a whiter colour upon cutting into them. (Cebreiro, Afuega’l Pitu)

Goat cheeses are white when you cut into them, if they have been ripened for a short to medium period of time, 1 to 3 months (Ibores, Murcia wine cheese, Palmero, Majorero, Garrotxa).

When they reach a greater degree of maturity, after 4-5 months, these same cheeses take on a matte white colour rather like ivory.

Excessive whiteness in hard or semi-hard cheeses is a sign of high acidity and poor production. Over time, post-acidification occurs and the inside becomes acidic and dry and the cheese develops very slowly.  Very young cheeses that are highly moist inside tend to take on an excessive acidity.

Lactic or  acidic log-style cheeses with moist rinds that have been ripened for shorter periods of time (goat cheese logs, Montenebro, Ossera, Baridá) are pearly white and their rind is edible.

As they develop, the part near the rind turns beige and it gets creamier.

Over time the inside gets darker, creamier, and takes on a more ammonia-like flavour.

Young cheeses derived from sheep’s milk and tortas have a bone-white colour, reaching straw yellow in the most mature cheeses and even darker tones in very aged cheeses.

The intensity of the yellow is also determined mainly by the animal’s nutrition. The milk of pasture-bred animals is higher in carotenes than milk derived from indoor livestock farming, which explains the deeper yellow colour.

Blue cheeses should be ivory-white with clear greenish blue veins distributed evenly throughout the paste, though mainly in the centre.

The darker the colour of the paste and the more the Penicillium mould has infiltrated it, the spicier and stronger the cheese will be.

A brown border around the rind means that the cheese is very developed and that it has a spicy, soapy and strong flavour on the palate.

Other blue cheeses like Peral must be totally infiltrated with green mould (penicillium),, although in smaller quantities than the other cheeses. When a cheese is very young and the mould has not grown much inside, the cheese’s bitterness is more predominant.

Gamoneu is a very special cheese and little is produced. The colour of the paste should be yellowish and it should feature some blue Penicillium veins beneath the rind. The Designation of Origin allows for two types:  “del Valle” and “del Puerto”. “Del Puerto” cheese ripens in natural caves and is made in the summer from the milk of the animals that graze there. “Del Valle” cheese can be ripened in natural caves or under artificial conditions and is made all year.

 

The Eyes (bubbles - holes - cracks)

There are basically two types of eyes: those produced by the lactate-fermenting bacteria present in the milk and in the fermenters added during production, and the mechanical eyes that are technically “cracks” produced during pressing. The first ones are rounded and slightly crushed and the second ones are irregular in size and shape.

In general, Spanish raw milk and pressed cheeses have eyes (produced by fermentation) that are small – pinpoint sized – and limited in number and are irregularly distributed. It is also usual to find some type of mechanical eye no greater than 2 or 3 mm. A raw milk cheese without eyes (blind cheese) indicates an excellent bacteriological quality.

The cracks, splits and openings indicate defective production or unsatisfactorily hygienic milk quality.

Blue cheeses must have two types of eyes (mechanical and from fermentation) as well as small cracks or cavities in order to encourage the Penicillium cabraliensis to develop. This is also why the cheese is not pressed.

Among the cheeses made with pasteurised milk are those without eyes (Murcia wine cheese, San Simón), produced by adding homofermentative lactic acids to the milk, and cheeses with a small or moderate number of eyes due to the action of the heterofermentative lactic-fermenters, in addition to other aromatic compounds. (Tetilla, Arzúa-Ulloa, factory-produced Mahón and some Manchego cheeses).

Large, numerous eyes, swelling, bulging, cavities, or openings indicate low bacteriological milk quality and a defective production process.

 

The smell, aroma and flavour

These factors will influence us the most when sampling a cheese, since tastes vary greatly and are highly personal.

Strong spicy cheeses are aggressive on the palate, but some people love these cheeses. Generally, they are very evolved cheeses that clearly indicate a rancidity or saponification of the fats.

In a good cheese, the hints of spiciness should never be perceived towards the beginning of the tasting (not even in blue cheeses), because they will mask certain aromas and subtle flavours.

A good type of heat should be a spiced or peppered type and should appear at the end, in the aftertaste, and should be combined with a certain nuttiness. Cheese should leave a flavour that is “pleasing to the mouth”

The smell, at times, does not coincide with the flavour. There are cheeses that smell good to the nose, but taste bland or have a dirty or unpleasant flavour.

The smell of an animal stable or a dirty, rancid, soap or medicine-like smell, etc. is a good reason to reject a cheese and not buy it. Certain dirty, rancid and spicy flavours are also to be found in cheeses that have been vacuum packed for a long time.

Cheeses with a moist rind (Acehúche, Cabrales, Picón Bejhes-Tresviso) tend to undergo intensive fermentation and have a slight putrid smell in the nose, but this should not come through on the palate, especially the hints of very strong ammonia.

Good cheeses derived from pasteurised cow’s milk have a slight animal smell that is slightly reminiscent of cream and butter. In the mouth they have hints of yoghourt and certain herbs and flowers. The aftertaste should be pleasant and not bitter.

Cheeses derived from raw milk offer greater depth of flavour: the smell is stronger in those aged for lengthy periods (craft Mahón), the acidity is less pronounced and is more blended into the cheese.

In very mature cheeses, the aroma of leather and rancid butter develops with an aftertaste of roasted nuts (almonds, hazelnuts).

In goat cheese made from raw milk, the “goaty quality” is very pronounced and is a hallmark of its identity (Ibores, Acehúche, craft Majorero) but it should never take over. It is milder in cheeses made from pasteurised milk and can hardly be detected.

A goat cheese that is full of tiny air pockets is symptomatic of poor bacteriological quality, which leads to dirty aromas and unpleasant flavours. If it is aged over a long period, it has an excessive unpleasant bite to it.

Good sheep’s milk cheeses should be persistent in the mouth and buttery on the palate. We should be left with a slightly oily sensation with clean aromas and a fruitiness with hints of clean wool animals.

In torta cheeses, sour and bitter flavours should not be too pronounced. The texture should be very smooth, creamy and oily. Acidity and sharpness are negative attributes.

In cheeses with a soft interior and a moist rind, the predominant flavours are of vegetables and flowers (hay, herbs, straw) or fungi-like (with an earthy, oyster mushroom taste and a moist rind).

In cheeses where the internal paste has undergone washing, the hints of fermented vegetables (cabbage, cauliflower) are very pronounced and intense flavours are predominant.

Blue cheeses give off intense smells that can be reminiscent of a stable or shambles. They should not stand out much since the smell of moisture and  Penicillium should predominate.

Good blue cheeses are very aromatic, slightly acidic and have hints of sweet cereals (biscuits) and nuts. The spice comes on little by little and is persistent but is not aggressive.

This also depends on personal taste, since many Cabrales lovers enjoy its excessively spicy and metallic flavour.

 

PRESERVATION AND CARE

Cheese preservation always presents problems when we try to keep them for a long period.
Anyone who has ever left a wedge of cheese in the refrigerator without protection can confirm that the next day it becomes cracked and dry, despite the fact that it is the best at-home preservation method. The problem is that it is dry cold that “robs” the cheese of its moisture, drying it out.

If you want your cheeses to keep well, you should wrap them appropriately, in food wrapping paper of the sulphurised type with a film, especially for soft cheeses in a small size since they will suffer the most.

Another option is to use airtight plastic containers but you should keep an eye on soft cheeses since they produce ammonia at low oxygen levels.

To keep pieces of cheese for longer, and prevent the outer mould from penetrating the interior, you can cover the eyes, holes and cracks with a knife, as if to seal the opening (similar to how we spread butter on bread).

 

Temperature

The drying out and abrupt changes of temperature are, perhaps, cheese’s two main enemies.
Hard cheeses must be kept between 8ºC and 12ºC.  Soft and blue cheeses require lower temperatures.  (4-8ºC).

To store them for longer they can be wrapped in a slightly damp cloth or in their original packaging and kept at a lower temperature (2-4º C).

 

Humidity
This is probably the factor that people are most careless about in the preservation of cheese but it is one of the most important.  Cheeses need a high level of humidity (85-95%) for them to age properly.

The softer the cheese and smaller its size, the higher the level of humidity needed to preserve it.

The best way of preserving moist-rind cheeses in the refrigerator is to wrap them in a slightly damp cotton cloth.

In cheeses with washed rinds, scrub them with a cloth soaked in salt water every 3-5 days. This prevents the interior from drying out and keeps the rind from cracking.

 

Preservation of different types of cheese

Small-format, soft cheeses from milk with a low fat content (such as that of Friesian cows and some goats) quickly become dry and brittle in texture. For this reason it is best to store these cheeses well wrapped in a cold environment for no more than 15-20 days.

Large-sized blue cheeses (2 to 3 Kg) that are at the optimum point of consumption will keep well for a month. Small-sized ones go bad very easily because they tend to dry out in just a few days.

Torta cheeses (Serena, Casar) are best eaten quickly, within 30 days, as long as they do not smell too strongly of ammonia.

Pressed goat cheeses last perfectly for 1 to 3 months, depending on their size and state of ripening when they are purchased.

Cheeses made at the end of winter (put on the market from April through June) are the most fatty and aromatic.

Pressed sheep’s-milk cheeses store better than other cheeses because of their high fat content. They will last perfectly for several months if protected in the refrigerator.

The harder the cheese and the higher the fat content of the milk, the better it will keep.
Very soft, creamy cheeses (torta and blue cheeses) can be frozen, although this will always result in some loss of flavour. Cut the cheese into four pieces and wrap them in aluminium or wax paper and put them in the freezer. Thawing should be done slowly, first in the refrigerator until it reaches a normal texture and then at the appropriate eating temperature (24-25ºC).

In general, freezing is not recommended for firm or semi-firm cheeses as this modifies their texture and flavour. They can be used as grated cheeses.

Those who wish to ripen their cheeses and get a very interesting experience out of it can use a standard refrigerator as a ripening or keeping cellar.
The trick is to keep the vegetable compartment full of water. This way the cheese will get the humidity it needs.

The temperature should be between 8 and 12ºC. Therefore, you use a higher temperature setting.

It is important to protect the cheeses with a damp cloth and turn them over every 3-4 days.

You can sample them periodically, every 10-15 days. The surface when cut over time will again be covered in bloom that serves as a protector. Once again, the thin layer of mould is cut and again you can sample it.

Cheeses made from raw goat’s milk that are small in size (1 kg) tend to improve significantly if they are left to ripen up to 3-4 months (from the production date); in the case of pasteurised milk, two months is enough.

Soft cow’s milk cheeses from the north of Spain gain a lot in terms of flavour after a month from the production date and no more than three, depending on the size. (It is good to note the production dates)
Cheeses made from raw sheep’s milk in large sizes (3 kg or more) develop their best characteristics 6 months after production and up to a year or more if they are well protected and kept out of the light.

Large-sized blue cheeses (3-4 kg) can develop well for up to 5 or 6 months after the production date.

It is necessary to remove them from their original aluminium wrapping and dry them with a cloth or kitchen paper if they are moist on the outside. Wrap them in a damp cloth and leave them in the coldest part of the refrigerator.

 



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