It's one of the most widely recognized names in the gourmet cheese marketplace. And for good reason. Here, all you've ever wanted to know about this Spanish cheese warrior, which has dominated the modern day cheese frontier for a much shorter period of time than it's actually been around.
Characterized by a mildly gamy (think lamb choppy) flavor and a hazelnutty sweetness, Manchego is everywhere. I remember the first time I tasted a firm, fatty piece: at the Dean & Deluca cheese counter, when I quickly committed its name to memory. Since then, thousands of consumers have done the same, and it continues to dominate sales worldwide.
It's arguably Spain's most well-known cheese, made in La Mancha with the whole (full-fat) milk of Manchega sheep. Younger versions are aged for about 3 months, but you can find wheels aged for 9 months or longer, at which point they become drier and punchy, with a longer, more resilient finish. You'll find examples that are bland and innocuous, but when you've happened upon a great producer, you'll taste only round, meaty flavors and a distinct, creamy bite. Another traditional way of aging the cheese is in olive oil, which produces a rindless, super-dense, and much too often, very greasy (go figure) end product.
You'll see Manchego made with pasteurized or raw milk. With regards to its ultimate quality, it's a point about which you could argue indefinitely, so it's hard to judge the cheese solely on whether or not its a pasteurized version. It's easy to spot Manchego from afar because of its rind. It's inedible and waxy with a cross-hatched, herringbone pattern that it gets after being drained and molded in a plastic patterned basket.
Traditionally, it's served with membrillo and marconas, or maybe some Serrano ham. A glass of sherry is an obvious choice to spotlight its nutty notes, or some Crianza Rioja wouldn't hurt, either. But don't fear straying from Spanish territory. Manchego, with its fullness and fatty backbone, is a versatile pair for many red wines and fuller bodied whites. Since it's made with 100% sheep milk, it will be higher in fat, and can actually leech out its butterfat as it comes to room temperature. It's for this reason that a wedge may look shiny or greasy on a cheese plate.
More and more, we've been seeing it used in cooking, with suggestions for its incorporation into mac & cheese, sandwiches, salads, and even hand pies. Manchego makes an excellent melter and works wonders with all types of egg dishes.
But somehow, there's nothing quite as memorable as trying it on its own, perhaps on a simple piece of deli paper, passed over the top of a cheese counter.
You can find Manchego at Murray's Cheese for $20/lb and at igourmet.com for $11.99/ .5 lb or at Zingerman's for $11.50/ .5 lb.
Related: Twist on Tradition: Hand Pies
(Images: BBC Good Food and Iberian Foods)