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Manchego (officially Queso Manchego) is a cheese made in the La Mancha region of Spain from the milk of sheep of the Manchega breed, which is 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 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..
Manchego has variety of different flavours depending on its age. There are three 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.
Curado is 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.