In Spain quality cheese production is taken seriously. Owing to the variations in Spanish climate and geography the taste and flavour of the cheeses produced in each region of Spain vary considerably.
Each cheese possesses unique characteristics that affect the finished product, such as the type of milk used to produce the cheese, i.e. sheep, goat, cow or a mixture; the production process; and the aging process.
Cheese is divided into three flavour categories: light, medium and strong. The classification is dependent upon the type of milk used as well as the process used to age the cheese. Sheep milk or a mix of milk combined with a longer aging process generally results in a strong flavoured cheese, whereas milder flavoured cheeses come from cow's milk and are generally soft cheeses.
Cow's Milk Cheeses
Spanish cheeses made from cow’s milk originate from Galicia, Cantabria, Cataluña and the Balearic Islands. A different breed of cattle is generally raised in each region affecting the eventual flavour of the cheese.
Tetilla is a good example of a mild cheese. Originating from Galicia in the Northwest, Tetilla cheese is also known as Queso de Perilla, Queso de Teta, Queso de Teta de Vaca, or Queso Gallego de Teta. It is an aged cheese, from soft to semi-cured, made with whole cow's milk. The soft paste, thick and smooth, has a very creamy flavour that is particularly popular with children. This cheese is eminently suitable for cooking, especially in recipes requiring coating as it melts easily.
Arzua-Ulloa is a semi-cured cheese, also from the region of Galicia. It is similar to Tetilla but has a slightly stronger flavour. It is yellowish in colour with a creamy texture and a smooth, waxy rind.
San Simon, another cheese produced in Galicia, is a semi-cured cheese that is matured for three weeks and smoked over birch wood to produce an unusual, tangy flavour. It has a waxy, grey-brown rind. The colour of the cheese itself varies from the less matured white to the more matured darker yellow. Generally, this semi-hard cheese is not used in cooking but more often as a tapa.
Queso de Cantabria, also known as Queso de Nata de Catabria, Cantabria's Creamy Cheese, is produced in the coastal region of Cantabria. Made from pasteurised cow's milk and aged for only a very short period of time, it is another soft cheese that practically melts in the mouth. It offers the unusual combination of the smooth flavour of cream cheese coupled with a delicious distinctive kick. This cheese is also great for cooking as it too melts quickly when heated.
Mahón cheese originates from Menorca in the Balearic Islands. There are three varieties of this cheese: soft, semi-cured and cured. The soft version is white in colour and has a thin rind; the semi-cured is firm with a buttery flavour and has an orange-coloured rind; and the stronger flavoured cured version is crumbly with a hard texture.
Goat's Milk Cheeses
Murcia al Vino is made from the milk of the Murciano-Granadina, considered to be the best milk producing goat breed in all Spain. The cheese is made from goat milk which has been pasteurised; it is dense and creamy with a pleasant and light aroma and a smooth, light rind, which is rubbed with red wine.
Montsec is a bright white, hard cheese from the region of Cataluña, on the Eastern coast of Spain. On the outside it is rubbed with wood ash during the maturing phase giving it chalky look, but inside it has a lovely, creamy flavour.
Ibores is a round, semi-hard cheese from Extremadura, in Western Spain. Traditionally the cheese is coated in paprika or oil, resulting in a spicy flavour and a reddish hue on the outside. Inside it is waxy, darkish yellow in colour.
Majorero comes from Fuerteventura in the Canary Islands. It is produced from the Majorero breed of goats that mainly graze on marjoram. With a flavour hinting of honey and almonds, this cheese is often described as releasing a somewhat peppery aftertaste.
Sheep's Milk Cheeses
Manchego is probably the most well known Spanish cheese; it was even mentioned by Cervantes in the legendary "Don Quixote of La Mancha". It is made solely from the milk of Manchego sheep raised in the "La Mancha" region. The shape of this cheese is very characteristic and defined, due to the traditional use of esparto grass moulds which imprint a zigzag pattern along the side of the cheese. An aged cheese, ranging from semi-cured to cured, Manchego has a soft, crumbly texture coupled with a piquant, buttery flavour. Manchego is considered to be the definitive Spanish cheese.
Zamorano, originating from the province of Zamora in the Northwestern area of the Castilla-Leon region, is an aged cheese, ranging from cured to very cured. It has a crumbly texture and a somewhat intense, tangy flavour. The rind is dark grey and oily. The cheese itself is compact and does not melt easily.
Roncal is hard cheese from the Roncal Valley in the Navarra region. This cured cheese is ivory in colour, is very firm yet crumbly, and has a thick, grey rind. Roncal is cured for a minimum of 4 months and has a distinctive buttery flavour with an aroma of dried fruit and mushrooms.
Burgos is moist, lightly-salted, mild cheese from the province of Burgos, in Northern Spain. Although generally made with sheep’s milk, Burgos is occasionally made from cow’s milk as well. White in colour and made from semi skimmed milk, Burgos is made as a fresh rather than cured cheese, meaning that it is best eaten soon after being made. It is popular mixed with dried fruit as a dessert and is frequently used when making a cheesecake.
Idiazábal cheese gets its name from the town of the same name in the Basque region that, sadly, no longer exists. It is a hard cheese made from the unpasteurised milk of the long-haired Lacha sheep and has been cured for between 2 and 6 months. With a sharp, acidic and somewhat salty flavour, this cheese can be bought either smoked or unsmoked.
Mixed Milk Cheeses
Cabrales is the most well known Spanish blue cheese and originates from the Picos de Europa mountain range in Northern Spain. It can be made solely of cow's milk or, more often, using a combination of cow, sheep and goat milk. It is matured in limestone caves under cold, oxygenated and very humid conditions for 2 to 5 months. The cheeses are turned periodically until completely covered with mould, thus giving it its deep blue veining. With a distinctively strong, characteristic flavour and powerful smell, it is soft and creamy with a thick texture and a soft, sticky, greyish-brown rind. Historically, Cabrales was wrapped in chestnut or fig leaves but nowadays it is sold wrapped in aluminium foil with images of leaves printed on it.
Picón is another three-milk blue cheese from the same area as Cabrales. Also matured in caves for a minimum of 2 months, it is a creamy, white cheese with blue-green veins and has a sticky, soft gray rind with yellowish-green spots.
Valdeon is another Spanish blue cheese that is made in Northern Spain. Made from a combination of cow and goat milk it is off-white in colour and has a strong, spicy flavour. It is often used for a sauce requiring blue cheese.