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All cheese considered: cheese of Portugal.

With Spain basking in the limelight these days, too often we forget that there is another country on the Iberian Peninsula, one that has an equally rich culinary history and a great tradition of cheesemaking. The narrow, mostly coastal strip that is Portugal once ruled the seas and was establishing far-flung colonies and spice trade routes long before either Spain or England. In fact, Portugal was a major maritime power long before Columbus sailed on his first voyage to the Americas, and Portuguese influence extended far and wide. Among other things, the Portuguese are credited with introducing vindaloo to India and tempura to Japan, and their colonial Chinese city of Macau was known as "the Venice of the East" for more than a century. Naturally, the coastal cities of Portugal grew fat from the riches brought back from their trading outposts in the East, Africa and in South America--goods that included gold, spices and sugar. In the interior of the country, however, in the high mesas along the Spanish border, the sheep and goat herders didn't benefit as much from the newfound colonial wealth, thus keeping many of the traditional foodways intact, including that of making cheese.

Just like their Spanish cousins, the Portuguese drew heavily on cheesemaking skills learned from the Romans who controlled the Iberian Peninsula for several centuries. Besides being overshadowed by Spain, Portuguese cheeses in general are not considered in the same way as the cheeses of, say, France or Italy, which is understandable since they don't have nearly the range or depth of the latter cheeses. Nevertheless, Portugal has some distinct and lovely cheeses, and we were able to taste some outstanding examples recently when we visited the Tradifoods stand at SIAL last October in Paris. They were exhibiting the full range of Portuguese cheeses, many of them name-protected DOP, including two very similar washed-rind cheeses that are also the best known: Queijo Serra de Estrela and Queijo de Azeitao. These cheeses bear a similarity to examples produced across the border in the Extremadura region of Spain, notably Torta del Casar and Serena. Serra de Estrela is named for the mountain range that extends down the center of Portugal. Due to an absence of cattle in the high country, thistle rennet (Cynara cardunculus) is used to coagulate the raw milk from the Bordaleira sheep. Serra de Estrela is made by hand, pretty much the way it has been made for over 800 years. When ripe, the cheese becomes soft, almost runny on the inside, with a rich bouquet and a delicious buttery flavor. The whole wheels are 6-8 inches in diameter with a lovely burnished orange rind. A great party cheese, it is typically served by simply slicing off the top crust and scooping out the soft paste with a spoon or a crust of bread.

Azeitao is named for a small market town south of Lisbon, and is also a name-protected cheese. Having migrated down from the north, cheesemakers brought the same techniques for making Serra de Estrela to this area, which explains why the two cheeses are so similar. Azeitao is slightly smaller and has a stronger, earthy aroma with a creamy, flowery taste. Both Azeitao and Serra de Estrela are swathed in cheesecloth to contain them as they both would simply collapse as they age. Other name-protected cheeses we tasted included the small, fruity Evora; the mixed milk (goat and sheep) Amarelo da Beira Baixa that had a wonderful milky flavor and a lovely yellow color due to the goat's milk (amarelo means yellow); a clean, hard, nutty cheese called Terrincho Velho that is bound with straw ribbons and has a wheat sheaf tied to the top; the pungent and grassy Serpa; and Sao Jorge, a larger cow's milk cheese from the Azores Islands that is the forebear of our own St. George made in Petaluma, Calif. The cheeses of Portugal are wonderful examples of handmade cheeses that still bear the stamp of tradition and a sense of terroir. They may not be as well-known as those from Spain, but then again, Spanish cheeses have only become recognizable here in the past few years. Perhaps with some merchandising effort, Portuguese cheeses might become the next big thing.
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Title Annotation:Case & Counter
Author:Mellgren, James
Publication:Gourmet Retailer
Geographic Code:4EUPR
Date:Feb 1, 2007
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