Spanish Food 101: Queso

A culinary journey through Spain via the unparalleled medium of informal oral testimonies. This is written in English. If you would like a Spanish/Spanglish translation may I recommend reading slower, louder, and adding the letter “o” intermittently to the end of words. This is the ninth part in the series of this crash course in Spanish cuisine. An introduction to this tale can be found by clicking here, and you can see the earlier forays of this adventure by scrolling down and reading more of this blog, which I would recommend that you do anyway. 

The cheese board comes out at least once a day. Mother wields a knife, the children lean keenly in, she gesticulates during conversation, the children move back to eat and avoid the swing of the knife. Observing the mother during most meals, it would seem that the way to keep slim as you go into your forties (she told me many a time that it was much harder to stay slim as you get older. Many, many a time) is to spend most of your mealtimes cutting your children’s food. When it comes to finally eating your own meal, everyone else has almost finished and you don’t want to be left as the last person eating. With cheese, the children eat it so quickly that she has to take an “eight for you, one for me” eat break or miss out on the cheese altogether.

In Andalusia, the group of us went through at least one and a half blocks of cheese a day. Most of this was eaten by a skinny German girl.

In Europe they love cheese. In Britain we rather like cheese, but our fondness of it isn’t comparable. We may use it as a regular ingredient of our cooking, go out for cheese boards and have cheese evenings, but that we have to preface it with “cheese” rather than just calling it an “evening” and not note that we are eating a variety and not insubstantial quality in our normal daily lives shows that we are not quite there yet.

There are more cheeses in Spain than I care to write about, so here are the favourites that I have come across. The children’s preferred brand is President, but, like other ingredients in the pantry, the parents go to a range of delis for their queso, so unbranded is the main brand.

 

Manchego

Manchego

In the same way as cheddar would be the English cheese were there a reason for the country to only have one designated cheese, manchego would be the cheese of Spain. It is the cheese that was always on the cheese board and the cheese you will likely receive if you order cheese for tapas. It is versatile enough to be the main element of a meal, melted and dipped with bread, creating a Spanish-style fondue (or camembert dipping evening, if that is your preferred bread-dipped cheese inclination).

To be officially classed as manchego, it has to come from La Mancha, use the whole milk of the manchega sheep, be aged for a minimum of sixty days and a maximum of two years, and be produced by pressing in a cylindrical mould with a maximum height of 12cm and diameter of 22cm.

Stringent rules for this cheese. Undoubtedly worth it. It is my preferred cheese of the cheese board, and of the fondue set, and would feature in the top three cheeses of each of the family members. Seeing the black rind on the cheese board always filled me with excitement.

A two weeks-aged queso fresco version is also available, and the mother also tends to have a manchego queso fresco in her cheese shelf at most given times. Mild, light and overall quite pleasant, it would surely only be the texture that would put a person off queso fresco. Texture, or allergy. Inoffensive and difficult to dislike, but more difficult to love than the stronger flavoured, aged cheeses.

“Fuertes” one of the daughters declared. I had just eaten queso azul, but even if I had not, manchego can hardly be described as strong. A slightly rubbery consistency in the mouth but with bite, and a pleasant medium flavour, with a sharpness bite to it. The older the age (the classifications go from semicurado to curado then Viejo depending on aging period) the richer, deeper, nuttier and spicier the flavour. Make your own comparison to people here.

 

Tetilla Galega

queso_tetilla_9564_630x.jpg

Or ‘Galician tit cheese’, named for its shape: a small, conical breast topped with a ‘nipple’. Champagne glasses aren’t the only things shaped after breasts, though may be the only shaped directly on Marie Antoinette’s breast. From teat to tit: I wonder why this is the cheese to have taken its shape inspiration from the breast and why it isn’t more common practice.

Tetilla galega is a medium-soft, creamy cheese which has a mild sweetness to it and as such is often used for desserts. Not since comté, which I now like, have I had such a mixed first impression towards a cheese. Such is the sweetness that it is often eaten as a dessert in Galicia.

And for its rules for DOP certification: it must be produced from the milk of the Fresian, Parda Alpina or Rubia Gallega cattle and within Galicia – most traditionally in the towns along the provinces of Coruña and Pontevedra, and it must weigh from 500g – 1.5kg with a diameter and height ranging from 9-15cm.

For a comparatively (to northern Europe) rule-less nation, the Spanish do ascribe a seriousness to their food.

I enjoy tetilla galega for being the reason that the family said “tit cheese” over and over again during an al fresco dinner. How I will miss the daily outdoor dinners.

 

Queso Azul

This specifically is the cheese that the German girl ate by the block. Never have I seen one person enjoy eating blue cheese so much, or really enjoy eating anything so much. How her face lit up when we were in the cheese aisle of Mercadona. Her cheese of choice was Gorgonzola – a very blue blue cheese.

The son in Catalunya also had a preference for queso azul, with his cheese of choice being the queso de Cabrales. This cheese comes from Cabrales in Asturias and is produced from a mixture of two or three kinds of milk from the cow, goat and sheep. As a Spanish cheese, it would of course would be his blue cheese of choice as it is the cheese that his parents would buy, and the most readily available blue cheese at any given deli. It is more blue-greenish in colour than the gorgonzola, possibly has a stronger smell, and is more creamy than crumbly in its consistency.

For years I disliked blue cheeses. Now, with my palate having developed towards “the stronger the taste, the better”, the more I like them. At one work Christmas dinner years ago, someone ordered a cheese board which they couldn’t finish; I took the stilton home for my then boyfriend and my bag never smelled the same again. Until two years ago this was one of my only direct experiences with blue cheese. While I now enjoy them, I couldn’t tell you the difference between any of them – unless, maybe, I tried each of them one after the other.

 

 

Croquetas

croquetas

Technically croquetas can be filled with most things, but my first experience of them was with cheese, so this is the segment that it’s going in. I am yet to have a bad croquet. The inner child and actual children has an innate attraction to anything breaded and fried. My order of preference for croquet fillings from most liked to least most liked is: bacalau, spinach, jamón, queso, pollo, then potato. The children, by contrast, loved the queso, pollo, jamón and patata, but weren’t keen on the bacalau and found the spinach actively revolting. To be fair, an moist dark green croqueta isn’t overly alluring for the eye.

Croquetas gained popularity in Spain during the late-nineteenth to early-twentieth centuries, with housewives finding it an effective, economic and delectable way to use up ingredients. It is quite complex to make, so for the time conscious (majority) of the population, they are eaten at a tapas bar or bought at a deli. The filling is coated in bechemel sauce and a crisp breadcrumb batter. It ideally should be eaten in two bites (or one huge bite so your dining companions can’t see just how many you are wolfing down), with the outside giving a satisfying crunch before you hit the soft, smooth filling.

You take a bite of the cheese croqueta and the melted cheese unctuously spreads itself across your mouth. And hands. You lift the spilled cheese into your mouth trying not to catch the attention of anyone else. You do not, as they are busy doing the same, or preparing the food of their children. Another crisp bite followed by oozing cheese. The first croqueta is better, but as you eat subsequent crispy parcels of happiness, the cheese hardens and it is less messy.

 

Mató

1024px-Cheese.Mato.Catalonia

A dessert cheese, for a sweet dessert rather than a “cheese board as dessert” desert. A cheese board isn’t a dessert, it’s a cheese board. Ptch. Cheese dessert like cheesecake.

This soft cheese is produced in Catalunya from the milk of either a cow or a milk and is usually served with honey in mel I mató (which Google Translate doesn’t recognise as having an English translation). Along with crema catalana it is the typical dessert of Catalunya. It is generally agreed among the family (and therefore in all of Catalunya) that crema catalana is the conqueror of this dessert battle.

Mató is lighter than crema catalana, lighter and softer. It is a little like a flan. The choice when you want a dessert, when your tooth desires some sweetness, but don’t want the full indulgence of crema catalana. Plus it’s a cheese so that’s like, protein, right?!

 

This has been a hard way to learn that I have a lactose intolerance.

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