Manchego (officially Spanish: queso manchego) is a cheese made in the La Mancha region of Spain from the milk of sheep of the manchega breed. Official manchego cheese is to be aged for between 60 days and two years.
Manchego has a firm and compact consistency and a buttery texture, and often contains small, unevenly-distributed air pockets. The colour of the cheese varies from white to ivory-yellow, and the inedible rind from yellow to brownish beige. The cheese has a distinctive flavour, well developed but not too strong, creamy with a slight piquancy, and leaves an aftertaste that is characteristic of sheep’s milk.
The designation queso manchego is protected under Spain’s Denominación de Origen (DO) regulatory classification system, and the cheese has been granted Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status by the European Union.
To be designated as queso manchego, the cheese must satisfy the following requirements:
- It must have been produced in an area that is restricted to designated parts of the provinces of Albacete, Ciudad Real, Cuenca and Toledo that lie within the La Mancha region.
- It can be made only with the whole milk of sheep of the manchega breed that are raised on registered farms within the designated area.
- The cheese must have been aged for a minimum of 60 days (30 days for cheeses weighing up to 1.5 kg) and a maximum of two years.
- The cheese must be produced by pressing in a cylindrical mould that has a maximum height of 12 cm and a maximum diameter of 22 cm.
Manchego cheese can be made from pasteurised or raw milk; if the latter, it may be labelled as artesano (artisan). The only permitted additives are natural rennet or another approved coagulating enzyme, and sodium chloride (salt).
Manufacture and Labelling
The moulds in which the cheese is pressed are barrel-shaped. Traditionally, manchego cheese was made by pressing the curd in plaited esparto grass baskets, which left a distinctive zig-zag pattern (known as pleita) on the rind. Today the same effect is achieved by the mould, the inside of which has a design in relief that imparts to the finished cheese an embossed pattern similar to that of woven esparto grass. The top and bottom surfaces of the cheese are impressed with a design of an ear of wheat.
During the maturation process, manchego cheese develops a natural rind. The regulations permit this to be washed, coated in paraffin, dipped in olive oil, or treated with certain approved transparent substances, but require that it must not be removed if the cheese is to be marketed as PDO.
Cheeses that meet the DO requirements carry a casein tab that is applied when the cheese is in the mould and bear a distinctive label that is issued by the Manchego Cheese Denomination of Origin Regulating Council; this carries the legend queso manchego, a serial number, and artwork depicting Don Quixote de La Mancha.
A cheese that is similar to manchego and made in the same region, but from a blend of cow’s, goat’s, and ewe’s milk, is sold as Queso Ibérico or ibérico cheese.
Spanish Queso Manchego
Manchego has variety of different flavours depending on its age. There are four versions of maturity sold:
- Fresco – the fresh cheese is aged for only 2 weeks, with a rich but mild flavour. Produced in small quantities, it is rarely found outside Spain.
- Semicurado – a semi-firm cheese aged for three weeks to three months, somewhat milder than curado.
- Curado – a semi-firm cheese aged for three to six months with a sweet and nutty flavour.
- Viejo – aged for one year is firm with a sharper flavour the longer it is aged and a rich deep pepperiness to it. It grates well, but can also be eaten on its own or as tapas.
Manchego in North America
In Mexico and Spanish-speaking areas of the United States, manchego or queso tipo manchego (manchego-type cheese) is the name given to a cow’s milk cheese similar in taste to Monterey Jack. It melts well and is often used in quesadillas. Apart from the name, this cheese has little in common with the Spanish variety.
Manchego in Central America
In Costa Rica, two companies (Dos Pinos and Los Alpes) produce a manchego-type cheese (queso tipo manchego) which can come with a drawing of Don Quijote on the labels. One company also makes a manchego-type cheese with basil added. These Costa-Rican cheeses can come dipped in paraffin, and some have the pleita pattern pressed on the side.
When considering substituting Manchego in a dish, it’s really important to know what variety of Manchego you trying to replace.
Substitute for Manchego Viejo
It’s most likely that this is what you’re looking for – a hard cheese with a complex, intense flavour. Maybe you’re grating it or just slicing it and eating it off a cheese board. The two obvious options are Pecorino Romano and Asiago.
Asiago is a beautiful cheese from a small region in the north-east of Italy. It can be aged to extreme hardness and has a spicy, sweet taste – really well worth trying! However, if you can’t get Manchego then it’s unlikely that you can get Asiago as it’s even less prominent.
So your best option is Pecorino Romano. Also Italian, this cheese rests somewhere between Parmesan and Manchego. It’s not as salty and strongly flavoured as Parmesan, and also not as dry. It doesn’t quite approach Manchego’s refined taste, but still it’s a pretty good substitute as it will behave essentially the same way – maybe use a little bit less so it’s not overpowering.
If you can’t even get Pecorino then you’ll have to go with Parmesan, but you really don’t want to use too much as it will rapidly take over the whole dish with its strong saltiness.
Substitute for Manchego Curado
The obvious substitute for this gorgeous melting cheese is Mozzarella. It’s also a semi-soft cheese which has high moisture content so that means that it melts perfectly – hence its traditional role on pizzas and lasagna. The main difference is that real Mozzarella is made from buffalo milk, which tends to be a bit lower in protein and higher in fat than the sheep’s milk of traditional Manchego, though conversely it’s also higher in calcium and lower in lactose.
If you’re not a Mozzarella fan then you can definitely try cheddar or Gruyère or even a Monterey Jack (if you’re in the US), but they’re all a bit more strongly flavoured than Manchego Curado so they won’t be a perfect replacement.