Manchego has been produced for thousands of years in the La Mancha region of Central Spain. Archaeologists have found evidence of Manchego cheese production on the La Mancha plains from before the time of Christ, when Iberian civilisation was still in the Bronze Age.
Other references to Manchego appear in Cervantes¹ famous XVII century novel, Don Quixote. In between tilting at windmills, the fantasy knight Don Quixote and his travelling companion Sancho Panza spent many pages nibbling on Manchego cheese and washing it down with wines from the region.
The early cheese-makers were milking the ancestors of the current breed of Manchega sheep, which, unlike cows, can thrive in the dry and rocky terrain of the plateaux of the region. Today the Manchega sheep graze mostly on dry pasture, fallow land and stubbly brush fields on high plateaux surrounding the cities of Toledo, Albacete and Cuenca, in a region south-east of Madrid. The somewhat harsh grazing conditions in the region might be expected to yield milk that is lower in fat. In fact, the opposite is true.
Manchego actually has a fat content of as high as 57%, which explains its rich flavour.
The La Mancha plains were a focus of political dispute for centuries between Northern Christians and Southern Muslims, who fought for control of its pastures.
The Muslims who inhabited the land from the eighth through the eleventh centuries dubbed it Manya, which meant "land without water”.
Eventually, that would translate into Mancha, the name that is used today.
King Alfonso VI conquered and united the region in the twelth century and forced the Muslim inhabitants to retreat to the Andalucía region of modern day Spain. The resultant lack of political stability led, by the end of the century, to the organisation of the area's stock farmers into co-operatives, which in turn brought a stronger regional identity and
political and economic power to the agricultural inhabitants. By the 1600s the efficient use of pasture land led to the decline of stock-farming and the rise of land farming.
By the mid-1800s, wool production (once a staple of the region) was in decline, and the production of meat and cheese moved to the forefront of the local economy.
By the beginning of the 1900s, local farms focused more on cheese production. As production steadily grew, La Mancha evolved into a cheese power-house with techniques tied to the local Manchega sheep herds.
Today Manchego is one of the world¹s famous and loved cheeses. However, the demand for Manchego has resulted in industrialisation of production and often consequently a loss of quality.
Since 1984, Manchego Cheese has been classified as a Denominación de Origen (DO) cheese in Spain. It is also a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) cheese in the European Union. These classifications require Manchego to be:
1. Produced in the La Mancha region of Spain
2. Made from the whole milk of Mancha sheep
3. Aged in natural caves for a minimum of 2 months
4. Made in a specifically sized barrel-shaped mould, with a cross-hatched rind.
Originally Manchego Cheese was made by moulding the cheese curd in esparto grass baskets, which left a distinctive zigzag pattern on the rind of the cheese.
Today, Manchego Cheese is produced in moulds which embosses this same pattern on to the cheese.
Taste and Texture
Manchego Cheese is a hard, buttery-tasting cheese, with a silky texture. It has an ivory-coloured interior punctuated by several small holes.
This crumbly texture dissolves in the mouth, so revealing the creamy richness of the ewes¹ milk that lingers pleasantly on the palate. It can be recognized by the unique zigzag or crosshatch pattern in its black-gray or buff-coloured rind. This rind in some cheeses is artificial and inedible.
Manchego is traditionally served with thin slices of Membrillo, a Spanish quince jelly.
The Classes of Manchego
Manchego Fresco: when aged for two weeks
Manchego Semi-curado: when aged for three months
Manchego Curado: when aged for six months
Manchego Viejo: when aged for one year.
Manchego Cheese may be labeled as "artisan", if it is produced with raw milk.
LA OVEJA NEGRA the Finest Manchego in all of Spain
Since the production of Manchego has become increasingly industrialised, The Fine Cheese Co. has been on a mission to source and supply a true, artisan Manchego: one that defines the style, and is the Manchego of both our memory and our dreams.
That search is over.
THE FAMILY STORY
It starts with a family. It always starts with a family. The Parra family has been working on the land that is La Mancha for generations.
They are wine-makers who married into dairy. Three brothers ran the organic wine operation: Javier, Francisco and Luis; and then Javier¹s wife arrived with her cheese-making skills.
The larger family's objective was simple: to create a Manchego that tasted like it used to.
The Parras started knocking on doors, found people who remembered how to make Manchego by hand, and assembled a cheese-making team, all of whom happened to be women. Then they went out and bought a herd of sheep, different from any other.
THE MILK STORY
This Manchego is made from milk produced by a heritage breed of black Manchega sheep that graze the certified-organic Parra family vineyard in La Mancha, central Spain (about two hours south-east of Madrid, near the town of Las Mesas).
These black sheep (oveja negra) were the original breed that had been phased out in the 1970s in favour of a slightly larger, white variant that produced more milk.
In fact, these little black sheep were on the verge of extinction. (There are still only about 10,000 left in existence, and 1,300 of them live on this farm.) Their milk is 100%
organic. (The sheep also play an important role in the cycle of the land, keeping the grass and weeds in check and fertilizing the farm and vineyard without the use of chemicals.)
THE IMPORTANCE OF THE MILK
Because of the richer, creamier milk produced by the black sheep, and the fact that the sheep live almost entirely on the grasses of the farm, La Oveja Negra Manchego is denser, moister, creamier and sweeter than mass-produced Manchegos.
The milk comes only from the Parra farm, and is unpasteurised. The cheese is made with traditional rennet, and, following draining, the finished cheeses are allowed to age naturally, with only olive oil used for brushing.
In contrast, most producers cover their Manchegos with a breathable polymer that inhibits mould and slows moisture loss.
TASTE THE DIFFERENCE
La Oveja Negra cheese has a high moisture content, giving it a creamy mouth-feel despite its slightly crumbly texture. The cheese has a buttery, lanolin scent. Its flavour is nutty, herbaceous, sweet and savoury at the same time, and more complex than mass-produced Manchegos.
The cheese is available in three stages of maturity: semi-curado (3+ months), curado (6+ months), and añejo (12+ months).
RUTH RASKIN, CHEESE QUALITY MANAGER AT THE FINE CHEESE CO.,
DESCRIBES WHAT SHE LOVES ABOUT MANCHEGO SEMI-CURADO FROM LA OVEJA NEGRA:
Whether it is because it is produced using the milk from the smaller black variety of the Manchega breed of sheep, or that the sheep are farmed organically, grazing on land that is free from chemical fertilizers and pesticides, La Oveja Negra Manchego has a clean taste that is unique.This is most pronounced in the semi-curado where one can still taste a milky freshness. The texture is softer and more pliable than other semi-curado cheeses; and the rind is produced without the addition of anything except olive oil from the same farm. In the same way that a large supermarket-bought strawberry’s taste is a pale imitation of the intensity of the small wild variety, so too is the flavour of other Manchegos, when contrasted with Manchego made from milk of the Black Manchega sheep.
Wine to Partner Manchego
There are two contrasting options that work equally well: a full-bodied red wine which balances the richness of the cheese, or an ice-cold Fino dry sherry that offers a fresh and clean counterpoint.
Crackers to Partner Manchego
The Fine Cheese Co. Quince, Pecans and Poppy Seeds Toast has a sweetness and a nuttiness that flatters Manchego.
Alternatively our Fig Crackers add a honeyed note to ewes' milk cheeses.
For a neutral partner, The Fine Cheese Co. Olive Oil Crackers, with a dusting of sea salt, are crisp and savoury.
Fruits to Partner Manchego
For a truly authentic and quality experience,serve Manchego with Santa Teresa Membrillo (quince jelly) cut into thin slivers. It has a floral fragrance and a honeyed sweetness, and is exceptional.
The Fine Cheese Co. Quince Fruit Puree is 70% quince with cane sugar, and has an equally delicious flavour and a silky-soft texture.
Dried Moscatel (Moscato) grapes are also a Spanish tradition to be served with Manchego. The Fine Cheese Co. Moscato grapes are sun-dried to capture their intense concentrated sweetness.
We also offer a Moscato Grape Nectar. Grape Nectar is combined with sugar to create this unique and ancient grape nectar.
It has a honeyed sweetness, wine fragrance and a thick, runny consistency to anoint your Manchego.