High in the Serra da Estrela mountain range of Portugal, artisanal cheesemakers have been producing this, their namesake cheese, almost the same way for centuries. Starting with raw sheep’s milk (it has to, since the cheese is DOP protected), Serra da Estrela is completely handmade; even the curds are cut by hand! The result is a cheese that is, though I hesitate to say creamy, certainly soft. Unlike triple-crèmes, with their melted butter consistency, I find Serra da Estrela to be thick and fatty. We’re talking warm foie gras here.
The smell is briny and cavey, bringing your senses back in time a scant few months to when the cheese was sitting, wrapped in its characteristic cloth (much more sensual than France’s option for containing unruly cheeses: tree bark) in the aging caves. This is not a cheese for the faint of heart; tangy, with a definitive sheepy flavor, Serra da Estrela is so decadent that it's positively hedonistic! The flavor bears the signature twang of Portuguese cheeses, due to the use of thistle rennet, an odd means of coagulating the milk where, instead of animal rennet, the cheesemaker uses water steeped with dried thistle flower. As the cheese ages, it gets more pungent and takes on a sweetness that reminds me of buckwheat honey.
The cheese's main production runs through the winter months, making it a perfect cheese to enjoy this time of year. Like its Spanish cousin, Queso de la Serena, serving can be simply a matter of cutting off the top of a whole wheel, letting it reach room temperature and enjoying by dipping bread in it. However, I have the perverse idea that dried plums would be excellent with it as well. Enjoy Serra da Estrela with an equally heavy and warming wine. Obviously port would be nice, but other fortified wines, such as sherry, would also be excellent.
Serra da Estrela is available online at iGourmet for $27.99 a piece (each wheel weighs approx. 1lb), $32.50/lb at Artisanal and newly in stock for $26.00/lb at Brooklyn’s Cobblestone Foods.