As a lover of all things Portuguese for many years, I have been working to build the selection of Portuguese cheeses here at our Cambridge location. In the past, we’ve had a few varieties at a time, but this is the first time we’ve had as large a selection as this, and I’m very excited about them all. Here’s the lowdown on the line-up!
A few preliminaries: Portuguese cheeses are often wildcards – you never know from looking at a cheese what sort of flavor you’ll get. Almost all the cheeses we carry from Portugal are basically farmstead cheeses, produced by hand at the local level and intended for Portuguese consumption. They seldom make their way across the pond. Cheesemaking traditions in Portugal have been resistant to modernization; instead, to meet the growing demand, Portuguese cheesemakers have made traditional methods more efficient and produce non-DOP versions of most of their DOP cheeses. The result is that, although the cheeses are sometimes a bit expensive, you really can taste the tradition of small-scale, regional production in a way that is difficult with US-destined cheeses from many other European countries. So read up, taste up, and enjoy!
Sheep milk cheeses:
The all-stars of the Portuguese cheese scene, sheep are one of the hardiest ruminants and are well adapted to handle the country’s challenging terrain. They produce milk with more protein and fat than cows and goats – this is likely responsible in part for that glorious “sheepiness” taste we all know and love. Yum!
Serra da Estrela – Produced by Casa Matias, one of the best producers in the region of Serra da Estrela (north-central Portugal), this raw sheep milk cheese is curdled with cardoon thistle, which breaks down proteins and fats differently than traditional animal rennet, giving the lactic acid bacteria (not added, but allowed to grow from ambient strains) different food to chew on, and therefore different flavors in the finished cheese. Lactic fermentation takes place later, which is why you’ll find distinct flavors of sour milk in a cheese that should be too aged to show them. Texturally, the breakdown isn’t as complete as, say, Brie or some washed-rind cheeses; instead, the texture is springy and lively, the flavors like straw, butter, sunshine, and sheep. It’s kind of amazing. Hand-tied with a cloth wrap to help it keep its shape, it’s spongy and can be eaten as the centerpiece of a family dinner à la Winnimere, Harbison, and the like.
Castelo Branco DOP – From Beira Baixa, south of Serra da Estrela and not far from the Extremadura region of Spain, this raw sheep’s milk cheese is also curdled with thistle. The curd is pressed though, giving a denser texture with a creaminess that expands as the cheese dissolves in your mouth. Mild and nutty, its rind is edible and contributes to the overall flavor nicely.
Azeitão – A tiny giant, I could eat one of these for dinner every night. Made with raw sheep milk and thistle rennet, textures vary from spongy and broken-down to still curdy in the center, nearly always with a pleasantly yeasty dusting on the rind. Produced on the peninsula of Setúbal, whose northern shore holds the southern reaches of the capital of Lisbon, this cheese comes in DOP and non-DOP versions. Right now, we have the non-DOP. In addition to being cheaper, it is sometimes (as in the case of this batch) better, I think. The wrapper reads “amanteigado,” but don’t be fooled: all this means in Portuguese cheese terminology is something like “buttery soft,” and shouldn’t be confused with the very different cheese that’s actually called “Amanteigado.”
Serpa DOP – Yet another raw sheep milk cheese curdled with thistle, Serpa is a bit of a wildcard among wildcards. Hailing from Portugal’s arid southern Alentejo, it can be gassier than the others in its style – almost fermented, but with a balanced bitterness and sweet, ovine depth. I’ve paired it with Flemish sour beers and been blown away by the pleasant resonances of wild yeast and earthy depth. This cheese has many flavors unfamiliar to the American palate but if you’re adventurous, you’ll find it oh-so-rewarding.
Terrincho Velho DOP – From the Trás-os-Montes region of northeastern Portugal, this dense and tiny wheel is made with raw sheep milk and animal rennet, its rind rubbed with sweet paprika, white wine, and extra virgin olive oil (EVOO). Its production is very traditional, and only milk from a local goat breed, Churra da Terra Quente (Hot Earth), is used. Aged for over 90 days, this cheese strikes me as reminiscent of the sheep and the region: rugged and workmanlike. Nutty and bold, an ideal pairing with Douro reds.
Sabores d’Avózinha – A very traditional and humble cheese from Figuera de Castelo Rodrigo in Portugal’s northeast, it has a very delicate curd structure – you can break the curds apart easily as you cut it – and an unctuous, sheepy depth. This is, I believe, its first time in the US. Some find it strong, others feel it’s pleasantly full-bodied. It is rubbed in paprika like many cheeses from the north, and pairs wonderfully with honeyed figs and zippy white wines.
Goat milk cheeses:
Like sheep, goats are hardy grazers and can handle the wild flora of Portugal with ease. Goat milk responds less readily to thistle as a renneting agent, but there are a few cheeses that use it nonetheless. The results are a bit more subtle than with the sheep milk cheeses, but are again a lovely demonstration of small-scale tradition.
Cabra Raiano – You wouldn’t know it from its richness and depth of flavor, but this goat cheese is produced with pasteurized milk and animal rennet. Exceptionally creamy and less bitter (some say) than its sheepy cousins, these small wheels are a very different expression of goat milk. Foregoing the typical alternation that we see between milky softness and chalky density often seen in small-format French and US goat cheeses, this cheese is creamy and delicate all the way through, and not “bucky” in the least. Some wheels are more like what we think of with washed-rind cheeses like Twig Washed, while others tend a bit more toward something like Castelo Branco. Really excellent, all around.
Cabra da Beira Baixa – A raw goat milk version of the legendary Amarelo (see below, under “mixed milk”), this is a riff on a classic that has turned out remarkably well. Hailing from Beira Baixa in central Portugal and made with traditional animal rennet, this cheese is a well-salted gustatory delight. Not one for subtlety, this cheese can be quite punchy, with a big salt profile. The payoff in pairing is an affinity for quince and full-bodied, floral wines with a bit of residual sugar.
Pastagens do Convento – Small wheels, nearly rindless, made with raw goat milk and thistle rennet in Trás-os-Montes, the home of Terrincho Velho. Made with milk from the local breed of Cabra Serrana (basically meaning just “mountain goat”), this cheese is an interesting (and recent – this is its first availability in the US) exception to the “sheep + thistle” rule, unusual also because of its dense paste and lack of barnyardy character. It is slightly sour and floral, pairing nicely with dried apricots and figs, and generally excellent all-around as a table cheese. It can be almost oily (recall how Cabra del Berrocal can be) and wet, and always delicious.
Cow milk cheeses:
With a few rare exceptions, cow milk is used on the islands that make up the archipelago of the Açores, culturally and linguistically both contiguous with and disjointed from mainland Portugal. It’s a funny thing: on the mainland, you get tiny cheeses made with sheep and goat milk; on the rocky, steep terrain of the islands, you get wheels – sometimes huge – made with cow milk, often in a Dutch style. Craziness.
Casa de Mendevil Velho – From the Minho in northwestern Portugal, this small-format, aged cow milk cheese is a real anomaly. Made with pasteurized milk and traditional rennet, it is aged for a little under a year, washed with sweet red pepper and EVOO, and shows a surprisingly strong flavor and firm texture. Like the harder cow milk cheeses from the Açores, this cheese has a pronounced spice on the finish, a real “zing!” Buttery while dense, salty while bright, strong but not sharp, it’s a strange beast. But I think it’s delicious, and it gets people’s attention like few other cheeses I know.
Castelinhos – From Terceira Island in the Açores (no, not the A-zores), an island group far off the coast of Portugal, this pasteurized cow milk cheese is creamy and consistently soft from rind to rind. It won’t stand up and blow you away, but its pleasant character of sour milk, light acid, and hints of saffron make it a surprisingly fun cheese if, as many do, you make the mistake of assuming that such a humble cheese can’t be delicious. Açorean cheeses are very different from mainland Portuguese cheeses – recall Ilha Graciosa, Açoreano, and São Jorge – in that they generally use cow milk, and are modeled off of Dutch rather than traditional Iberian cheeses. Trade in the Age of Discovery was the impetus, and they have continued to develop this tradition on their own.
Mixed milk cheeses:
The only thing that’s better than one milk is two or three milks! But seriously, mixed milk cheeses are often born of necessity rather than deliberate artistry, and so give us a window into artisan cheesemaking at its most expedient and traditional. We’re seeing the same thing happen in real-time with some domestic cheeses, where the cheesemakers are mixing milks to make up for low yields, and discovering delicious new styles by accident.
Amarelo da Beira Baixa DOP – Sheep and goat, made with animal rennet by the same producer as Cabra da Beira Baixa. An absolute classic, with a salty, washed-rind character and a bold, smooth presence. Can be quite strong, but with real nutty quality to the rind and an earthy funk not unlike Ardrahan and Gubbeen. The goat milk gives a sort of uplifting effect to the earthy and unctuous sheep milk.
Bica – From the Minho (cf. Casa de Mendevil), this cheese is made with a blend of pasteurized goat (70%), cow (20%), and sheep (10%) milk, with traditional rennet. Texture is soft and springy, consistent and not funky in the least. Slightly sour and goaty, it is smooth and satisfying. I don’t want to say it’s an easy cheese, but it definitely isn’t challenging – and I could eat it all day. Washed with sweet red pepper and white wine.
I hope you have a chance to stop into the shop and try some of these cheeses. Of course, if you have any questions about these cheeses or the pretty phenomenal Portuguese preserves, figs, and sweets we have around the shop, just let me know.
Matthew Swoveland wears several hats at Formaggio Kitchen Cambridge – among them are: cheesemonger, instructor, coffee buyer and cheese buyer.