5 Spanish Cheeses You Need to Try

5 Spanish Cheeses You Need to Try

by Guillermo Pabon Garcia on May 16, 2024

Spain is known for its rich cheese-making tradition, offering a wide variety of flavors and textures. This article explores five essential Spanish cheeses: Manchego, Cabrales, Tetilla, Idiazabal, and Mahón, along with a bonus cheese, Cheese with Rosemary. Each section delves into the origins, production processes, flavor profiles, and pairing suggestions for these iconic cheeses. Discover what makes these cheeses unique and beloved across Spain and beyond.

Manchego: Spain's Most Famous Cheese

Manchego cheese is a standout among Spain's rich cheese tradition, known for its distinct flavor and deep cultural roots.

Origin and History

Manchego cheese hails from the La Mancha region of Spain, a land well-known for its windmills and vast landscapes depicted in Cervantes' "Don Quixote." With a history that dates back centuries, Manchego has been integral to Spanish gastronomy and culture. It is made from the milk of Manchega sheep, which have been bred specifically in this area for their rich and flavorful milk.

Historical records indicate that Manchego cheese was produced as far back as the Bronze Age, highlighting its long-standing significance in the region. Traditional methods have been preserved and passed down through generations, ensuring the cheese maintains its authentic characteristics.

Production Process

Manchego production adheres to stringent guidelines to preserve its Denomination of Origin (DOP) status, which guarantees quality and authenticity. The process begins with the collection of high-quality milk from Manchega sheep.

Step-by-Step Production

  • Milk Collection: Only milk from Manchega sheep is used. It must be raw and unpasteurized for traditional varieties.
  • Coagulation: The milk is heated and a natural rennet is added to induce coagulation.
  • Curd Cutting: The curd is cut into small pieces to separate the whey.
  • Pressing and Molding: The curd is placed in a cylindrical mold and pressed to remove excess whey, giving Manchego its unique texture.
  • Salting: The cheese is salted either by rubbing with dry salt or immersing in a brine solution.
  • Aging: Manchego is aged for a minimum of 30 days and up to two years. The aging process occurs in specific conditions that regulate humidity and temperature.

Flavor Profile and Texture

Manchego cheese is renowned for its creamy yet firm texture, often described as buttery with small air pockets distributed throughout. As it ages, the cheese becomes harder and more crumbly. The flavor varies with age:

  • Young Manchego (Fresco): Aged for only 30 days, it has a mild, creamy flavor with a hint of tanginess.
  • Semi-Curado: Aged between 3 to 6 months, offering a slightly stronger flavor with nutty undertones and a more pronounced creaminess.
  • Curado: Aged for more than 6 months, Manchego Curado has a rich, intense flavor with a firm and crumbly texture, offering notes of caramel and grass.
  • Viejo: Aged for a year or more, this variety is the most intense, with a sharp, nutty flavor profile and a dry, crumbly texture.

Pairing Suggestions

Manchego's versatility allows it to pair exceptionally well with a wide array of foods and beverages. Here are some pairing suggestions to enhance its flavor:

  • Wine: Bold red wines like Tempranillo or Rioja complement the robust flavor of Manchego, while a crisp, dry white wine provides a refreshing contrast.
  • Accompaniments: Serve Manchego with Spanish olives, almonds, and serrano ham for a traditional tapas experience.
  • Fruits: Fresh figs, grapes, and quince paste (membrillo) enhance the cheese's nutty and sweet notes.
  • Bread: Pair with crusty baguette slices or rustic bread drizzled with olive oil.

These combinations elevate the tasting experience, highlighting the unique qualities of Manchego cheese.

Cabrales: The Blue Cheese of Asturias

Cabrales is a deeply flavorful blue cheese from Asturias, known for its robust character and traditional production methods.

Origin and History

Cabrales has been produced in the Asturias region of northern Spain for centuries. This region, characterized by its lush landscapes and rugged mountains, provides the perfect environment for the grazing animals whose milk is used in the cheese's production.

Historically, Cabrales was made in small family-owned farms scattered across the region. The cheese owes its distinctive flavor and unique characteristics to the traditional methods passed down through generations. The name "Cabrales" itself is derived from a small village in the area, which has become synonymous with this extraordinary blue cheese.

Production Process

The production of Cabrales cheese is an intricate process that begins with the collection of raw milk from local cows, goats, and sheep, often blended. This mixture of milk types contributes significantly to the cheese's complex flavor profile.

After coagulation and curd cutting, the cheese is drained and formed into molds. The most remarkable aspect of Cabrales' production is its aging process. Traditionally, the cheeses are aged in natural limestone caves found in the Picos de Europa mountains. These caves have a constant high humidity and low temperature, ideal conditions for the development of the blue veins that characterize Cabrales.

The maturing process lasts anywhere from two to six months. During this time, the cheese is turned and cleaned to ensure even development. The result is a rich, blue-veined cheese with a creamy texture and strong flavor.

Flavor Profile and Texture

Cabrales is well-known for its intense and spicy flavor, which can be quite pungent. Its bold taste comes from the mold cultures that develop during the aging process in the caves. The cheese has a strong, somewhat tangy taste with a slight earthy undertone.

In terms of texture, Cabrales is creamy yet firm. The paste is dense with a smooth, buttery consistency that becomes creamier as it warms to room temperature. The characteristic blue veining provides a distinct, marbled appearance.

Pairing Suggestions

  • Wines: Cabrales pairs exquisitely with sweet wines, which balance its intense flavors. Excellent choices include Spanish Sherry or a rich port. Robust red wines such as Rioja can also complement its strong character.

  • Fruits: The tangy and spicy notes of Cabrales work wonderfully with fruits like pears, apples, and grapes. These fruits add a refreshing sweetness that offsets the cheese's pungent profile.

  • Bread and Nuts: Rustic bread and a selection of nuts, especially almonds and walnuts, are classic companions. The bread provides a hearty base, while the nuts offer a contrasting crunch and additional layers of flavor.

  • Cooked Dishes: Incorporate Cabrales into hot dishes such as steaks or burgers for an added depth of flavor. It also melts beautifully, making it a flavorful addition to sauces and baked dishes.: : 

    Tetilla: A Delicacy from Galicia

    Tetilla is a beloved cheese from the Galicia region of Spain, known for its distinctive shape and creamy texture.

    Origin and History

    The origins of Tetilla can be traced back to the lush, green landscapes of Galicia in northwestern Spain. This region is known for its robust agricultural traditions and its cool, wet climate, which is ideal for dairy farming. The name "Tetilla" means "little breast" in Spanish, a reference to its unique, teardrop-like shape.

    Historically, Tetilla cheese was made by local farmers using milk from native breeds of Galician cows, such as the Rubia Gallega, Frisona, and Pardo Alpina. These cows graze on rich, verdant pastures, which contributes to the high-quality milk used in Tetilla production. The cheese has been a staple in Galician culture for centuries, often enjoyed during festivals and family gatherings.

    Tetilla has earned a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status, ensuring that only cheese produced in certain areas of Galicia and made according to traditional methods can be labeled as Tetilla. This protects the integrity and quality of the cheese, allowing it to maintain its esteemed reputation.

    Production Process

    The production of Tetilla cheese begins with the fresh milk of Galician cows. This milk is pasteurized and then coagulated using animal rennet. Once the curd forms, it is cut into small pieces to release the whey, which is then drained off.

    The curd is carefully placed into molds that give Tetilla its characteristic conical shape. These molds have small holes to allow additional whey to drain off, ensuring the curd compresses properly. After molding, the cheese is salted. This step is crucial for flavor development and also acts as a preservative.

    Tetilla cheese is then left to mature for a minimum of ten days, though some varieties may be aged for longer to develop a more complex flavor. During this aging process, the cheese forms a thin, waxy rind that helps protect its creamy interior. The final product is a semi-hard cheese with a pale yellow color and a smooth consistency.

    Flavor Profile and Texture

    Tetilla is celebrated for its mild, buttery flavor with subtle hints of salt and a slightly tangy finish. The cheese's texture is creamy and spreadable, making it a versatile choice for a variety of culinary applications.

    When sliced, Tetilla reveals a uniformly smooth and supple interior. The cheese has a fine balance between creaminess and firmness, allowing it to melt beautifully when heated without losing its structure. This balance makes Tetilla an excellent choice for both cold platters and hot, melted dishes.

    Pairing Suggestions

    Tetilla's mild and creamy profile lends itself to an array of delicious pairings. Here are a few suggestions:

    • Wines: Tetilla pairs well with light, crisp white wines, such as Albariño or a young Sauvignon Blanc. The acidity and freshness of these wines complement the cheese's creamy texture.
    • Fruits: Fresh fruits like apples, pears, and grapes make excellent companions to Tetilla. The natural sweetness of the fruits contrasts nicely with the cheese's subtle saltiness.
    • Nuts and Honey: A drizzle of honey or a handful of toasted nuts can enhance Tetilla's delicate flavors. The nutty crunch and natural sweetness add an enjoyable texture and taste combination.
    • Breads: Tetilla is perfect for spreading on crusty bread or mild crackers. Its creamy texture makes it easy to spread, adding a rich, buttery element to your bread or crackers.
    • Cooked Dishes: Tetilla melts wonderfully and can be used in a variety of cooked dishes like grilled cheese sandwiches, casseroles, and even as a topping for pizzas. It melts into a smooth, creamy layer that enhances the overall flavor of the dish.

    These pairings help to bring out the best in Tetilla cheese, making it a versatile and delightful addition to any meal.

    Idiazabal: Robust Flavors from the Basque Country

    Idiazabal cheese is a cherished specialty from the Basque Country, known for its distinct smoky and nutty flavors.

    Origin and History

    Idiazabal cheese has its roots in the Basque Country and Navarra regions of northern Spain. Named after the small village of Idiazabal, this cheese has been a staple in the local diet for centuries. The production of Idiazabal is deeply tied to pastoral traditions, as it utilizes milk from Latxa and Carranzana sheep, breeds that have long roamed the hills of the Basque and Navarra regions. These sheep graze on the lush, herb-filled pastures, which contributes to the characteristic flavor of the cheese.

    The history of Idiazabal cheese dates back to ancient times when shepherds would make cheese to preserve milk during the grazing season. In 1987, Idiazabal received its Denomination of Origin (DOP) status, ensuring that only cheese produced in specific regions and under strict guidelines can bear the name.

    Production Process

    The production of Idiazabal cheese follows a traditional method that has been refined over generations. The process begins with high-quality raw sheep’s milk, which is heated to a specific temperature before adding natural rennet to curdle the milk. Once the curds form, they are cut into small pieces to release the whey.

    After draining the whey, the curds are placed in molds and pressed to remove any remaining liquid. The cheese is then salted either by soaking in brine or by dry salting the surface. This salting process not only enhances the flavor but also aids in preservation.

    One of the unique characteristics of Idiazabal is its smoking process. Although not all Idiazabal cheeses are smoked, traditional versions are exposed to wood smoke from beech or cherry wood for several hours, which imparts a distinctive smoky flavor. The cheese is then aged for a minimum of two months, though it can be aged for longer to develop a more intense flavor and firmer texture.

    Flavor Profile and Texture

    Idiazabal cheese boasts a complex flavor profile that reflects its traditional production methods and the rich pastures of the Basque Country. The primary flavors are nutty and buttery, with a pronounced smoky undertone in smoked varieties. Additionally, Idiazabal has a slight tanginess and a hint of sweetness, which balance the overall taste.

    The texture of Idiazabal is firm and compact, making it easy to slice. As it ages, the cheese develops small eyes or holes and a slightly crumbly texture. The rind is typically hard and can vary in color from pale yellow to a deeper, smoky brown, depending on whether the cheese has been smoked.

    Pairing Suggestions

    • Wine Pairings: Idiazabal pairs wonderfully with medium-bodied red wines such as Tempranillo and Rioja, which complement its robust flavors without overpowering them. White wines like Albariño or Verdejo are also excellent choices, as their crispness and acidity balance the cheese’s richness.
    • Food Pairings: Idiazabal's smoky and nutty notes make it an ideal companion for cured meats such as chorizo or jamón ibérico. This cheese also pairs well with sweet accompaniments like quince paste or fig jam, which provide a pleasing contrast to its savory depths. For a more substantial pairing, try serving Idiazabal with crusty bread, olives, and a drizzle of high-quality olive oil. The combination of textures and flavors creates a delightful tasting experience.

    Mahón: The Jewel of the Balearic Islands

    Mahón cheese, hailing from the Balearic Islands, is a distinctive and cherished variety known for its unique flavor and rich history.

    Origin and History

    The history of Mahón cheese traces back to the island of Menorca, where it has been produced for centuries. The cheese is named after the port city of Maó, which has long been a hub of cheese commerce and tradition. The local climate, soil, and flora significantly influence the flavor of the cheese, making it a true representation of its region. The production of Mahón cheese is deeply rooted in Menorca’s rural culture, with methods and recipes passed down through generations. Its historical prominence is also tied to the island’s Mediterranean climate, which provides ideal conditions for aging cheese.

    Production Process

    Mahón cheese is traditionally made using cow’s milk, though some variants incorporate a combination of cow and goat milk. The production process begins with the heating of milk and the addition of natural rennet to coagulate it. Once coagulated, the curds are cut and placed into molds.

    During the pressing process, the curds are regularly flipped and salted, allowing the cheese to begin developing its characteristic flavor. After pressing, the cheese is left to mature, often on wooden boards, in cool and humid chambers.


    The aging process of Mahón cheese varies, resulting in different degrees of firmness and intensity:

    • Tierno: A young cheese aged for approximately 2-3 months. It is soft and creamy with a mild flavor.
    • Semicurado: A semi-cured variety aged for around 4-6 months. It has a firmer texture and a more pronounced flavor.
    • Curado: A mature cheese aged for over 6 months, offering a robust and intense flavor profile.

    Flavor Profile and Texture

    Mahón cheese has a complex flavor profile that depends on its age. Young Mahón (Tierno) is known for its smooth, buttery, and slightly salty taste, with a pale yellow color and a semi-soft texture that's easy to slice.

    Semi-cured Mahón (Semicurado) develops a more complex taste and firm texture, with a nutty and sharp flavor. Mature Mahón (Curado) is distinguished by its hard texture, deep yellow color, and intense flavor, featuring tangy and peppery notes with a hint of sea salt, attributed to the coastal environment where the cows graze.

    Pairing Suggestions

    Mahón’s versatile flavor makes it an excellent candidate for various pairings:

    • Wine: Young Mahón pairs well with crisp white wines such as Albariño or Chardonnay. For aged varieties, consider a robust red wine like Rioja or even a sherry.
    • Fruits: Fresh fruits like grapes, figs, or apples contrast nicely with the cheese’s saltiness. For aged Mahón, dried fruits add a wonderful balance.
    • Nuts: Almonds and walnuts complement the cheese’s nutty undertones. The slight bitterness of the nuts enhances the overall tasting experience.
    • Bread: A crusty baguette or rustic bread can provide a neutral base that enhances the cheese’s complex flavors without overwhelming them.
    • Charcuterie: When served with cured meats like Spanish chorizo or Serrano ham, Mahón’s flavors are elevated, creating a harmonious blend of tastes.

    Bonus: Cheese with Rosemary

    This section delves into the exquisitely unique Cheese with Rosemary. Known for its detailed production and nuanced flavors, this cheese offers a singular culinary experience.

    Origin and History

    Cheese with Rosemary, though not as universally known as Manchego or Cabrales, holds a special place in Spanish cheese-making traditions. Its origins are most often traced to the region of Castilla-La Mancha, a landscape renowned for its sheep's milk. Historically, shepherds would cover the cheese with local rosemary to both flavor and preserve it during long journeys.

    Over time, this practice turned into a beloved tradition, and the recipe was passed down through generations. The herbaceous aroma of rosemary became synonymous with this type of cheese, symbolizing a marriage between the pastoral life and Spanish gastronomy. Today, the tradition has spread, and various regions in Spain have adopted and slightly modified this cheese-making technique, bringing a touch of local authenticity to each version.

    Production Process

    The production process of Cheese with Rosemary is meticulous and deeply rooted in tradition. It begins with the selection of high-quality sheep's milk, typically from breeds known for their rich and flavorful milk. The milk is carefully heated and mixed with natural rennet to initiate coagulation, forming the curds that will become the cheese.

    Once the curds are cut and drained, they are pressed into molds to shape the cheese. This process is done while ensuring that the texture remains consistent and smooth. The cheeses are then salted and left to mature. It is during this maturation phase that the role of rosemary becomes pivotal. The cheeses are coated in fresh rosemary sprigs, infusing them with the herb's distinctive flavor and aroma.

    Ripening can take anywhere from several weeks to a few months, depending on the desired intensity of flavor. The rosemary not only imparts flavor but also acts as a natural preservative, contributing to the cheese’s longevity while preventing the growth of undesirable molds on the rind.

    Flavor Profile and Texture

    Cheese with Rosemary offers a unique taste experience that effortlessly blends traditional sheep’s milk flavors with the aromatic qualities of rosemary. The flavor profile of this cheese is a complex interplay of nuttiness from the milk and a delicate, aromatic bitterness from the rosemary. The initial taste is smooth and slightly creamy, giving way to a rich, herby finish that lingers on the palate.

    The texture of Cheese with Rosemary varies depending on the aging process. Younger cheeses tend to be softer and creamier, with a more subtle rosemary flavor. In contrast, aged versions develop a firmer, crumbly texture and a more pronounced herbal taste. Regardless of its age, the texture remains creamy enough to melt in the mouth while providing a satisfying bite.

    Pairing Suggestions

    Wine Pairings

    Cheese with Rosemary pairs exceptionally well with a variety of wines. White wines with a hint of sweetness, such as a Riesling or a Muscat, complement the cheese's herbal notes while balancing its slight bitterness. For red wine lovers, a light-bodied red like a Pinot Noir works wonderfully, enhancing the nutty undertones without overpowering the delicate rosemary flavor.

    Pairings with Other Foods

    • Fruits: Fresh or dried fruits like figs, apricots, and apples offer a sweet contrast to the cheese’s savory profile.
    • Nuts: Almonds, walnuts, and pecans bring a crunchy texture and rich taste, enhancing the cheese's nutty aspects.
    • Bread and Crackers: Artisanal bread with a firm crust or neutral-flavored crackers provide a perfect base that allows the cheese to shine.
    • Herbs: Fresh herbs like thyme and sage can complement the rosemary, creating a herbaceous platter that delights the senses.
    • Honey and Jam: A drizzle of honey or a spoonful of fig jam on top of a slice of Cheese with Rosemary can elevate its natural sweetness and add a delightful counterpoint to the herbal notes.

    Storage Tips

    Proper Refrigeration

    Storing cheese properly is essential to maintain its quality. Most Spanish cheeses should be kept in the refrigerator. However, it's important to follow these guidelines:

    • Wrap cheese in wax paper or parchment paper to allow it to breathe while preventing it from drying out.
    • Place the wrapped cheese in a loose plastic bag or a dedicated cheese storage container to maintain humidity.
    • Store the cheese in the vegetable crisper drawer or on the lower shelves of the refrigerator, where the temperature is more stable.

    Avoiding Cheese Spoilage

    Preventing cheese from spoiling involves several key steps:

    • Check the cheese regularly for signs of mold or off smells. Some surface mold on natural cheeses can be cut away, but deep mold or strong odors may indicate spoilage.
    • Ensure that soft cheeses, like Tetilla, are consumed within a week of purchase. Harder cheeses, like Manchego or Idiazabal, have a longer shelf life but should still be monitored for spoilage.

    Freezing Cheese

    While not ideal, cheese can be frozen if necessary. Follow these steps for freezing Spanish cheeses:

    • Wrap the cheese tightly in plastic wrap or aluminum foil to protect against freezer burn.
    • Place the wrapped cheese in a resealable freezer bag, removing as much air as possible before sealing.
    • Label the bag with the date and type of cheese to keep track of storage time.

    Note that the texture of the cheese may change slightly upon thawing, so it is best used for cooking or melting afterward.

    Serving Temperature

    Allow cheese to come to room temperature before serving to enhance its flavor and texture. Remove from the refrigerator about 30-60 minutes before serving, depending on the type and size of the cheese. This step is crucial for cheeses like Manchego and Mahón to fully enjoy their nuanced flavors.

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