There are less than ten cheesemakers left in Spain making farmstead PDO Manchego artesano with a natural rind like the one we offer at Essex St. Cheese. Farmstead means the animals live at the same farm where the cheese is made. PDO Manchego artesano is the Spanish government's seal of approval saying this is the real deal, the same great cheese that Don Quixote enjoyed hundreds of years ago. A natural rind—unwaxed, not the artificial brown like most Manchegos you see—allows the cheese to breath; the cut cheese's aroma is clean, it smells like hay and almonds.
José Luis Martin, head down in the picture, spent two decades as a cheesemaker on the wild edges of Extremadura in remote Southwest Spain. He helped design the cheesemaking rooms at Finca Sierra de la Solana and visits the farm every month to select cheese exclusively for Essex. He tastes many batches along with the farm's educator, Fernando Rodriguez Aldudo, pictured.
Together they seek batches that have a tender, juicy sweetness and a long, gentle finish. The cheese we import has none of the fierce mouthburn present in so many other Manchegos. In its place are flavors of lush pineapple and warm, toasty brioche.
Lambs are born on the farm in spring and fall to the quiet playing of Mariachi music on speakers throughout the nursery. They listen to it until they are three weeks old and then they go to graze—out of doors when temperatures are moderate, and when La Mancha bakes under summer's sun, they retire to a barn built with louvered windows where they enjoy a diet of what I call sheep muesli, a mix of native grains grown on the farm.
Finca Sierra de la Solana is a century and a quarter year old ranch in the heart of La Mancha, a couple hours southeast of Madrid. Manchega sheep have been part of its landscape for much of its existence, as they are through Mancha. They're adapted to their high plains life, scorching in summer, chilly in winter, arid, rugged and open.