Producer: Queijaria Artesanal Victor Fernandez
Where: Palmela, Portugal
At the Mercado da Ribeira, I found my cheeses at the Manteigaria Silva, where a very friendly Portuguese man took the time to carefully explain exactly what he was giving me. While I got four different pieces of cheese, my pick for the week was clearly the Azeitão. This creamy sheep’s milk cheese comes from a town with the same name, less than 20 miles south of Lisbon. Some of the neighboring towns are also allowed to produce it (the cheese has a Denominação de Origem Protegida (DOP) designation, so there are rules); mine came from the creamery of Victor Fernandes, and the British Guild of Fine Food agrees with me that this is one fine cheese.
Just like the Spanish Torta del Casar, the way to eat this puppy is to slice off the top, take a spoon to it and go to town. Sure, you can take a piece of bread and slather the delicious goop all over it; add a sip of wine if you want. But if no one is looking, why bother? I ate mine straight up, and I must confess it did not take long. Yes, it is that good.
The official leader of the pack of Portuguese cheeses is the Serra da Estrela, named for the mountain range where the sheep live that provide the milk. There are two different breeds, the Bordaleira Serra da Estrela and Churra Mondequeira, both of which do well in the rather unfriendly climate with long harsh winters and hot summers. Old Lucius Columella, a roman expert on agriculture already wrote about these sheep and the cheese made with their milk. They packed me a chunk of Estrela Velho, ripened for 18 months. It’s no longer runny, of course, but semi-hard. To me, the mix of tang, sweetness and saltiness was not that different from the Azeitão, even if the Estrela was sharper and obviously has a completely different texture: both are wonderfully complex (but not complicated) cheeses, they somehow seem a bit related.
A third cheese I tried that was interesting was also from the Estrela Mountains: Queijo da Cabra da Serra da Estrela – a goat cheese with a straw-colored rind and a semi-soft pale white paste. If found that the eating the rind made this cheese a bit too salty, but cut it away and you’re left with a nice, robust goat cheese that packs a bit of a punch. Quite a nice cheese, but not really a match for the other two.