Cheese / Queso / Formatge
Spain produces over 80 different types of cheese, many of them superb. One of the great pleasures of travelling in this country is discovering new local cheeses. Not many of them are well known outside their areas, as they usually have a short lifespan and do not travel well. Nevertheless, good cheese shops in the cities will stock a huge range of Spanish, French and other European cheeses, nowadays including several from Ireland apart from Irish cheddar, such as Gubeen or Ballymaloe.
Most Spanish cheeses are made from goat's or sheep's milk because so much of the territory is rocky and dry, unfriendly to cows but suitable for raising goats and sheep. However, cow's milk cheeses are also produced in the Balearic islands , the Pyrenees and the North of Spain. Mahón is a nice example from the capital of Menorca , and Teta de Bruja [Witch's Tit] or Tetilla is an interestingly shaped and named, if rather bland, cow's milk cheese from Galicia .
The most famous sheep's milk cheese is Manchego , from Don Quijote country, La Mancha in Spain 's central plain. The wild herbs on the sheep's grazing lands give Manchego a strong zesty flavour and aroma. It can be bought seco [very dry] or semi-seco ; there is also a rather bland softer variety, which I think must be blended with cow's milk cheese. Manchego seco has a firm but crumbly texture and a stronger taste than the semi-seco .
Other excellent sheep's cheeses are Roncal , from the beautiful valley of that name in Navarra, and Idiazábal , from the Basque Pyrenees. Both have an excellent sharp flavour. I am told that Queso de la Serena , from Extremadura, is also very good, and I have heard excellent reports of Zamorano , from Galicia .
Two very flavoursome hard dry goat's cheeses are Majorero , from Tenerife in the Canary Islands , and Ibores , from Extremadura. Another goat's milk cheese simply called De Murcia al Vino is famous, but I have yet to try it. My Argentinian flatmate Esteban likes to grate goat's milk cheese over spaghetti and the like, and I must say it beats packaged grated Parmesano hands down, whatever about the real stuff.
My all-time favourite Spanish cheese, called Torta del Casar , is also from Extremadura. This creamy delight is a worthy challenger to Brie or Camembert. Extremeño cheeses and embutidos are so popular that many markets feature stalls selling nothing else.
Cabrales is a blended blue cheese from northern Old Castile ; the veins are more black than blue, and the flavour is very strong. Picon is a milder version, comparable to Roquefort. Both are excellent in salads or with endivias [endives] or cogollos [baby lettuce hearts], especially as a sauce.
Queso de Burgos is the name of a soft cheese from the cathedral city in Old Castile , often served with sliced tomatoes and herbs as ensalada griega [Greek salad]; it's OK, but no rival to authentic Greek feta cheese. I use good old Philadelphia with herbs at home, although I would prefer Boursin if I could find it.
I cannot recall ever trying a Spanish queso ahumado [smoked cheese], but apparently there are several varieties.
The best Catalan dairy products, including cheese and yoghurt, come from La Garrotxa. The Catalan cheese most sold in shops is a creamy but rather bland cow's milk cheese from Cadi. It's better than processed cheese of the Kraft or La Vache qui Rie types, but that's about all that can be said for it. (However, I must confess to a personal weakness for Kraft's Cheez Whizz , especially on toast! It is almost impossible to buy here, but not quite, as my debility is shared by immigrants from the Philipines!).
In many bars and restaurants, especially in Castile , cheese is kept in big jars of olive oil, often with added herbs. There doesn't seem to be a special name for this beyond queso en aceite , but the result is absolutely delicious!
Like jamón, cheese is often served as tacos , which can be chunks, cubes, slices or slabs, or on tablas , big wooden boards. Tostadas de queso often have several types of cheese on them, melting to varying degrees.
Cheese is almost always eaten in Spain either by itself or with bread, accompanied by wine. English cheese biscuits are regarded as eccentric, but are usually well received as a present. However, the idea of drinking port or anything sweet with cheese is regarded as barbaric. I get funny looks when I ask for muscatel or garnatcha with cheese. I haven't dared to tell anyone here about Wendlesydale cheese with Christmas cake!
As against this, queso con membrillo [quince] appears fairly regularly on dessert menus, so perhaps the Spanish antipathy to mixing cheese with sweet stuff only applies to drink. A famous Catalan delicacy is called mató , a sort of crumbly cream cheese, traditionally enjoyed with honey, but also delicious with a jammy sauce made from blackcurrants, blackberries, raspberries or strawberries. Requesens is another variant. Actually, I'm not sure if these are cheeses or some form of curds or whey. Spanish quajada , also eaten with honey, is definitely something of the sort.
In skiing resorts and other winter sports centres in the Pyranees, Swiss-style raclettes and fondues, of both the bread-and-cheese and meat-and-oil varieties, have become very popular, along with the truly decadent fruit-and-chocolate dessert version, suitable for Roman orgies of the more depraved sort. Very undignified, totally contrary to the proud traditions of elegant Castile , and great fun!
I can't think of any traditions or customs associated with cheese, although I am sure that several exist. A not-very-challenging tongue twister children enjoy is " ¿Que es eso? ¡Eso es queso! " ["What's that? That's cheese!"].