I believe it’s safe to say that Portuguese like cheese (hey, I rhymed!). Whether it’s in a sandwich, as a snack, as an entrée or at the end of a meal – we like cheese.
The Serra da Estrela cheese (Queijo Serra da Estrela), probably the most famous and appreciated of Portuguese cheeses, is produced in the mountainous region of Serra da Estrela (a beautiful area, even if you don’t like cheese) and it has been granted PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) status in the European Union.
The region where this cheese can be manufactured is limited to an area of 3,143.16 km2, which comprises several municipalities. The production of the Serra da Estrela cheese has to follow strict rules. For example, it is made mostly from November to March and from sheep’s milk, but not any sheep’s milk will do – only those from the bordaleira Serra da Estrela and the churra mondegueira sheep (try saying that quickly!) can be used; the maturation period has specific rules and must last thirty days at least. As a side note to those of you who might be more interested in the fine art of making cheese I’d like to add that in this case the raw sheep’s milk is coagulated using a local type of thistle instead of the more common rennet.
The texture of the cheese varies: while still young it’s very soft and kind of semi-liquid; when older it’s still soft but you can slice it. So, how do you eat it? Simple: If you’re eating it in the ‘young’ version (and particularly if you’re
not sharing not going to eat it all in one go) you can cut a ‘lid’ on the crust, spoon out some cheese and put the lid back on. If you’re eating the ‘older’ cheese you can still cut the lid but it won’t be so easy to take some of it with a spoon, so you might as well slice it.
I don’t qualify as a cheese expert but I can tell you that it’s really really good when eaten with some nice marmelada (quince paste, not marmelade), artisan/rustic bread, pumpkin jam and I bet other types of jams could be used as well. Or, you can do like me: wait until there’s no family member around, take the lid off the cheese, plunge your spoon in, give it a nice swirl, remove the spoon gently, put the lid back on, erase any evidence of your actions, sit back and… enjoy!
Apparently some kind of great-great-great-grandfather of the Serra da Estrela cheese has been around for quite a long time: Columela, an officer in the Roman army who was born in the Iberian Peninsula around 2,000 years ago, wrote about the production of this cheese.
I found this cute video about the Serra da Estrela cheese: it gives you some context, shows how the cheese is traditionally made and you even have the added bonus of enjoying beautiful music by Carlos Paredes. Just please take it with a grain of salt – shepherds don’t dress like that anymore and the lady that shows up at around 1:22 exists only in someone’s bucolic fantasy.
And why all this talk about cheese? Because I love cheese and because there will be some important info about Serra da Estrela cheese in the coming posts! Stay tuned! 😉