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Hispanico Cheese
By Jim Wallace

Spain ... We spend very little time on the cheeses of Spain and I needed to find out why. 

The Hispanico cheese for this month will be made with 100% cows milk but when made with 100% ewes milk in Spain, it is called Manchego cheese.

There is another fabulous variation which is normally made from mixed cow-goat-ewe milk in Spain. This is called Iberico and in season when, I can get the ewe and goat's milk, this is what I make.


Before we begin, let me ask if you can first name 5 Spanish cheeses that you have tried!  OK, Manchego, most of you probably got that. And, those that could recall their experience with many other Spanish cheeses are probably working at famous cheese shops or are really serious 'Quesophiles.'

Now the question is, why does Spain with such a rich history and so many cheeses
"in country" have such a narrow presence here in America?

I asked myself that same question when I went to the University of Vermont this past fall to attend a Spanish Cheese workshop with their VIAC (Vermont Institute of Artisanal Cheese) program led by Enric Canut from Barcelona, Spain.
Enric turned out to be 'Senor Queso,' an incredible resource for the history, making, and promotion of Spanish cheese around the world.


A Bit of History

It may seem a bit surprising that Spanish cheeses have not held a place at the world table as have those of France or Italy. The primary reason for this is that Franco’s dictatorship, after the Spanish Civil War, outlawed the production of artisan cheeses in the name of modernization and industrial quotas. Most of the small producers became cheese outlaws and went underground, continuing to make their cheeses in rural regions for the localeHowever, many other cheeses disappeared completely.

In 1975, following Franco’s death, the Spanish were finally able to revive their traditional cheese heritage and rediscover their artisanal heritage. These artisan 'outlaws' were then able to come out of 'hiding' and bring their cheeses out in public. Unfortunately, some of these cheeses had been lost.

However, Spanish cheese goes way back in time. Archaeologists have discovered evidence of a cheese very similar to Manchego cheese being produced several centuries BC. From this time onwards, in each region of Spain, a unique style of cheese would have evolved, depending on the terrain, the type of animal that thrived there, and the climate. A wide range of sheep’s milk cheeses developed over the years in Spain’s dry interior, while the richer pastures and green mountains of the Northern coast and some of Spain’s islands, in more recent history, began to produce creamy cows milk cheeses. Throughout history, the goat has been the poor man's source of dairy.  Fresh goat's cheese for immediate consumption would have been made all over Spain.

In some ways, this break in the cycle of traditional cheese making is what makes the cheese of Spain so wonderful today, since it was so much less involved in the mainstream of modernization and industrialization during the early years. Those that were making cheese during this period were working 'below the radar' and thus keeping things small scale and traditional in many of the rural valley and mountain regions - much the same as had been done for centuries.

Because of the smaller scale and the fact that these were small farms and they kept a broad mix of milking herds to adapt to the diversity and climate of their particular region, many of the traditional cheeses were made of mixed cow, goat, and ewes milk. This was truly farmstead in nature, where the herd's person was also the cheese maker and they used whatever milk they had on the farm. The fact that the mix would vary considerably during the seasons would make the cheeses all that more interesting.

This has preserved many of the regional cheeses that are now coming back into production. In some regions today, people like Enric are asking questions and listening to the elders who made these cheeses before Franco's time and they are slowly bringing back some of these traditional cheeses.

What is Hispanico Cheese?

Like Manchego, Hispanico comes from the La Mancha region of Spain. (Yes, the same region as Don Quixote and "tipping at windmills.")

This region is a high plateau that stretches south of the capital, Madrid, encompassing the ancient, walled city of Toledo before reaching the beautiful Sierra Morena. The Muslims who inhabited the land from the 8th through the 11th centuries dubbed it "Manya," which meant "land without water." Eventually, that would translate into "Mancha," the name that is used today.

Hispanico is very similar to Manchego made with 100% cows milk and is made in the same forms that were used to make the original crosshatch designs (from the plaited Esparta grass linings) which the inhabitants developed to encourage proper draining.

This is one of the most popular cheeses in Spain.  This firm cheese is mild, yet tasty and aromatic. It is typically served as a table cheese, but is also appropriate for cooking.

It pairs well with Spanish red wines and cured meats, such as Chorizo and Jamon Serrano.


Variations in Style

Determined by the milk:
  • Made with all cows milk, it is called Hispanico cheese.
  • When made with all ewes milk the cheese is called Manchego.
  • It is called Iberico when made with a mix of cow, goat, ewe milk.
Depending on its age, it has a variety of different flavors.
There are three versions sold in maturity:
  • Fresco – this fresh cheese is aged for only 2 weeks, with a rich but mild flavor. 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 flavor. It melts well and is often used in quesadillas.
  • Viejo, aged for one year is firm with a sharper flavor the longer it is aged and has a rich, deep pepperiness to it. It grates well, but can also be eaten on its own or as tapas.


The Process Summary

  1. As mentioned above, Hispanico cheese is made from a varying mix of cow, goat, or ewe's milk and even the full cow/goat version.
  2. Traditionally, no culture other than the natural bacteria provided by the raw milk was used. Today, the norm is to add a culture blend based on these original cultures.
  3. The milk is initially warmed to 86F and ripened for a short period before adding rennet.
  4. Rennet is added and the coagulation takes place in about 45 minutes.
  5. The curd is then cut first into larger pieces, then into the final small curds that will eventually cook to a small rice sized grain with the final cook temperature of 97F.
  6. The curd is then consolidated under the whey to encourage a tight interior and to minimize the small holes that occur when forming a dry curd.
  7. The curd is then transferred in large pieces to the mold where it receives minimal press weight.
  8. The final cheese can then be salted with brine or dry salt before aging.

A recipe for making Hispanico Cheese

Before You Begin:

You will need:

  1. 2 gallons of whole milk (not ultra-pasturized)
  2. 1/8 tsp of our MA4002 culture. This currently tends to be a 2 part blend of:
    • Mesophilic culture that produces some gas (similar to a buttermilk culture) to work at the lower temperatures in the early part of the process when the milk is at cooler temperatures, and
    • Thermophilic culture that will work at the higher temperatures to convert lactose to lactic acid and also very important in developing the flavor character during aging.
    • (Both of these cultures are well represented in the MA4002 or farmstead culture.)
    • Note: If you have none of the MA4002 you may use about 1/2 pack of the C21 buttermilk culture plus 1/2 pack of the C201 thermophilic culture.
      This will not be exactly the same but will still produce a fine cheese.
  1. Liquid single strength rennet (1/2 tsp or 2.25 ml)
  2. Salt
  3. A good thermometer
  4. A knife to cut the curds, and a spoon or ladle to stir the curds. I find that a large kitchen whisk (with thin wires) will be the best tool to help reduce the curds to the very small rice size grains needed for this cheese.
  5. Molds - stainless-6 inch
  6. A colander and butter muslin to drain the curds
  7. A cheese press or weights to apply sufficient weight for consolidation of the curds
  8. Calcium chloride for pasteurized cold stored milk

Everything needs to be clean and sanitized.


Acidifying and Heating the Milk:

Begin by heating the milk to 86F (30C). You do this by placing the milk in a pot or sink of very warm water. If you do this in a pot on the stove, make sure you heat the milk slowly and stir it well as it heats.

Once the milk is at 86F, the culture can be added. To prevent the powder from caking and sinking in clumps, sprinkle the powder over the surface of the milk and then allow about 2 minutes for the powder to re-hydrate before stirring it in.

Allow the milk to ripen for 30 minutes before adding rennet.


Coagulation with Rennet:

Then add about 1/2 tsp (2.25ml) of single strength liquid rennet. 

The milk now needs to sit quiet for 30-40 minutes while the culture works and the rennet coagulates the curd. The thermal mass of this milk should keep it warm during this period. It is OK if the temp drops a few degrees during this time. You will note the milk thickening at about 15-20 minutes but wait for the full firmness.

Note:  the whey when cut is neither too clear (too late) nor too milky (too early)


Cutting Curds and Releasing the Whey:

The curd cut begins as a large vertical cross cut of about 1" squares. Let this rest 1-2 minutes while the whey shows between the cuts. This will firm the curds a little more before the next cut.

Then, use a knife for vertical cuts and spoon or ladle to reduce the curd to rice grain size.

(I find that a kitchen whisk with as thin a wire as you can find works best for cutting these smaller curds (similar to alpine and parma style cheese). I use this slowly at first and then increase the cutting speed as the curds are reduced in. As the curds become very small, a rather vigorous cutting speed can be used. This may take a while to get good at so do the best you can. Make sure you reach to the bottom and in all corners to get the curd cut to as even a size as possible.)

This should take about 10 minutes for cutting followed by another 20 minutes of stirring to firm the curds before increasing the heat.

The curds will begin as very soft grains with little to no structure and then
as they are stirred and then heated they will firm up, becoming smaller, until they stand as separate pieces.


Cooking the Curds:

Now it is time to begin drying out the curds. This will be done by increasing the heat slowly to 97F (36C). The heat needs to be increased slowly at about 2F (1C) every 5 minutes at the beginning. The total cooking time will be 25-30 minutes and may be extended to another 10-15 minutes if the curds are still soft.

The final curds should be cooked well through and should be examined to make sure that enough moisture has been removed. A broken curd should be firm throughout and the curds should have a moderate resistance when pressed between your fingers.

When this point is reached the curds can be allowed to settle under the whey.


Removing the Whey and Molding:

Once the curds settle to the bottom, the whey can be removed to the curd level with a colander and bowl.

The curd then needs to be consolidated to one side of the vat under the whey. I find the easiest way to do this is with a piece of our plastic matting (medium mesh) , but you could do this with a piece of muslin cloth. Use the cloth or mesh to drag the curd mass up against one side and consolidate with a light hand pressure into one compact curd mass. Next, find a plate or pan lid (sanitized) and use this with a little weight of about 8.5 lbs (this just happens to be the weight of that gallon of whey you just pulled off).

This weight only needs 20-30 minutes, after which the whey can be drained.

All of this is done to minimize the mechanical openings and to ripen the cheese to a good even and smooth paste.

The dry curd mass can now be transferred to your sanitized mold lined with butter muslin. If it is too large for the mold, just break it into several LARGE chunks and firmly pack into the mold with a firm hand pressure.


Pressing:

So, for pressing we should begin very light and slowly increase the press weight to a moderate level:

  • 30 minutes at 10 lbs.
  • 60 minutes at 20 lbs.
  • 5 hours at 30 lbs.
  • Overnight no weight

The rate of whey running off is simply a matter of drops or a thin stream of whey being released. This is a good rate of whey removal during pressing and will slow even more as the residual free moisture is released. The form should show tears of whey weeping from the form very slowly. When this stops, you can increase the weight slightly.

The cheese should be removed from the press, unwrapped, turned, re-wrapped, and put back into the press at the above intervals to assure an even consolidation. At each turn, you will notice the cheese has formed a smoother surface and rests lower in the mold. During the final rest, turning and re-wrapping several times will promote a nice smooth rind.

At the time of the molding, the culture has not reduced a lot of lactose and is still quite sweet (low acid - high pH) so try to keep the curd at 72-78F during the press time and then overnight. This slow production of acid which takes place largely after molding will develop a more elastic structure in this cheese. The next morning the cheese should have developed it's final acid and will be ready to be removed.


Salting:

You should have a saturated brine prepared for salting this cheese.
You will find all of the details you need on
brining here.
A simple brine formula is:

1 gallon of water to which is added 2.25 lbs of salt, 1tbs. calcium chloride (30% solution), and 1 tsp. white vinegar.

The cheese now needs to be set in the brine for about 8-10 hours for this cheese which will weigh about 2.25lbs.
The cheese will float above the brine surface, so sprinkle another teaspoon or 2 of salt on the top surface of the cheese.
Flip the cheese and re
-salt the surface about half way through the brine period.

At the end of the brine bath, wipe the surface and allow the cheese to surface dry for a day or two before waxing or continuing with a natural rind.
The surface will darken somewhat during this time.


Aging:

The cheese can now be waxed for aging. For details on waxing - click here.

OR

For a more traditional surface, just turn the cheese daily and brush off any mold that develops. The rind will firm and dry over time and at about 1-2 weeks begin rubbing in a few drops of olive oil. This will give the cheese a very attractive surface and make the mold removal over time much easier. You will find that after a month or so the cheese needs less and less.

The cheese can then be placed into your aging space at 52-56F and 80-85% moisture.

The cheese can now be aged for 6-8 weeks and it will ready for your table but will improve with age up to about 6-8 months.


So, have fun with this one and let me know how it goes.
When the sheep and goats
are back on the grass I will definitely be making the Iberico and Manchego versions of this cheese.

Come back again next month and I will have another surprise from Spain for you.

.


The Spanish Cheese Sessions at UVM

As I mentioned at the beginning of all of this, I spent a few days last October at the VIAC program on Spanish cheese. If they had to pick one person who probably knew more about the history, process and current state of Spanish cheese, they could not have found a better person than Enric Canut. This session was so popular that they needed 2 sessions to accommodate us.  It was great being in the second session because the process had been tweaked and we had the results of the first session to see and analyze. As a bonus, we had Marie-Chantal Houde as our technical assistant to replace the irreplaceable Marc Druart who has moved on and up in the cheese world. Marie-Chantal herself is a rock star of a cheese maker and she filled in Marc's boots quite nicely. She and her brother make cheese on the family farm in Quebec.

These sessions are usually attended by some of the best cheese makers currently in the US and Canada. It makes this an intense but informative three days.

For those unfamiliar with the University of Vermont and its VIAC (Vermont Institute of Artisanal Cheese) program, it is one of the best and I try to get to as many of their master classes as I can. The folks that appear there are the world's best of the best for the style to be featured - in this case Spanish Cheese.

For three days we explored, made, and tasted Spanish cheese and then went out and talked more about making cheese over great food and beer/wine.

So, Spanish Cheese!

We explored a diverse group of 3 cheeses:

  1. Torta del Casara .. (aka Queso del Serena) coagulated with a thistle flower and developing a very soft paste.
  2. Iberico .. A mixed milk cheese from which our recipe this month has been sourced as a full cows milk cheese and which is quite similar to Manchego.
  3. Garrotxa .. This is a goat's milk cheese with an unusual blue grey mold that I find quite similar to the St Nectaire of France.
This month I will focus on the portion of the workshop for the Manchego/Iberico/Hispanico (same process but different milks.)

Making an Iberico Cheese

So we begin! ...

Here we have our fearless leaders left-right
Marie-Chantal, Enric, Catherine Donnelly, and Montse Alamena
then, Enric jumping into the history and background of these cheeses.

When working with any new milks, it is important to determine how the milk will react with the culture and rennet you plan to use. Here, Enric had set up some milk and rennet samples to see how they performed together. In doing this, we were able to add just the right amount of rennet to our milk to meet our intended coagulation time.

We also made up a working batch of culture for the session because Enric felt  that working with a ripe culture was a better way to go. (Enric is a big fan of mixing up 1 liter batches, ripening to a particular target and then freezing in sterilized bottles for use through the week. He makes these batches fresh every week.)

Enric began by heating the milk, ripening it briefly, and then adding rennet to form the curd. All of these were quite similar to the time and temp in the recipe shown above.

Even with the trial coagulation, we still watched carefully for the proper time to cut and our results showed a cut time very close to our trial. Once the decision to cut was made, the first cut was a very large vertical cross cut which we followed with a brief rest.

Our next goal was to cut the curds to the proper curd size in preparation for the final cooking. Enric walked us slowly through his rather precise cutting with an eye to achieving even curd size as well as to avoiding damaged curds in the process. The cut began quite slowly and then picked up substantial speed as the curds became smaller and more elusive to cut. In the end Enric was quite pleased with the result. He then began the slow stir.

Once the curd began to firm the vat heat was increased gradually to dry and firm the curds.

While these curds were being stirred and the temperature increased we took a few minutes to evaluate the same cheese made the previous week.

At the end of the stir and cook, the curd was then examined for size and firmness to determine whether to begin the consolidation and transfer the curd to the molds.

We began the process by using 2 large sheets of draining mat to drag the curds to the top end of the vat. Once the curd was collected, the weight of the curd mass was enough and we needed no extra weight on the curd for consolidation (as we did in our home recipe above).

After a short rest, the remaining whey was removed and the transfer to molds was begun.

The curds were firmly packed in by hand then the follower was placed with a firm pressure. After 20-30 minutes, the weight of the cheese had consolidated and was ready to be turned in the molds. These molds were of the micro perforated type and needed no cloth. They also detailed the traditional markings of this Spanish style of cheese with the zigzag markings of the traditional plaited grasses.

The cheese was then turned in the molds and taken to the press to begin the light pressing.

The next morning, the cheese was taken from the press, de-molded and tested for the final acid development. The pH meter here shows a reading that is a little higher than the final desired, most likely due to a cool press room.  So, the cheese was left for several more hours on a table in the make room to develop the final desired acid.

This pH or acid target is an indication of the final level of lactose conversion and when correct it will assure that no late fermentation will continue in the aging room, which could lead to problems.

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