History of La Mancha:
Manchego cheese making has taken place in this region for thousands of year. Archeologists have found evidence of Manchego cheese production from before the time of Christ when the Iberian peninsula (continental Spain essentially) was still in the Bronze Age.
Other references appear in Cervantes 17th century novel of Don Quixote, Sancho Panza and tilting at windmill fame (still evident on the landscape as shown above).
The early producers of the area were milking the ancestors of what is now the Manchega sheep breed. They have evolved over the centuries to survive the very arid conditions with harsh grazing conditions. These conditions actually account for higher fat than we might expect in the final cheese and hence the richer flavor of Manchego.
The La Mancha plains were also a focus of political dispute for centuries between Northern Christians and Southern Muslims, who fought for control of its pastures.
The Muslims who inhabited the land from the VIII through the XI centuries dubbed it Manya, which meant "land without water”.
Eventually, that would translate into Mancha, the name that is used today.
King Alfonso VI conquered and united the region in the XII century and forced the Muslim inhabitants to retreat to the Andalucía region of modern day Spain.
The resultant lack of political stability led, by the end of the century, to the organisation of the area's stock farmers into co-operatives, which in turn brought a stronger regional identity and political and economic power to the agricultural inhabitants.
By the 1600s the efficient use of pasture land led to the decline of stock-farming and the rise of land farming.
By the middle of the 1800s wool production was in decline and as a result cheese and meat production grew.
So much so that by the beginning of the 1900s cheese production dominated the economics of the region primarily with the Manchega sheep supplying the milk. As it grew, the demand for the cheese increased to the extent that larger coops and commercial enterprises developed. However, the demand for Manchego has resulted in industrialisation of production and consequently to a great extent, a loss of quality.
Beginning during the Franco period post WWII, traditional cheesemaking throughout Spain suffered a severe set back when the government directed all milk to the large industrial cheese makers. It was not possible for small farms to make and sell their cheese. Fortunately a few brave soles went underground with their milk and cheese and some of the procedures survived this dark period but it was not until the late 1980s and well into the 1990s that small scale farmstead cheese making has shown as a true revival.
Since 1984, Manchego Cheese has been classified as a Denominación de Origen (DO) cheese in Spain. It is also a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) cheese in the European Union. These classifications require Manchego to be:
- Produced in the La Mancha region of Spain
- Made from the whole milk of Mancha sheep
- Aged in natural caves for a minimum of 2 months
- Made in a specifically sized barrel-shaped mould, with a cross-hatched rind.
The Traditions of cheese making in La Mancha:
Cheese that has been made for centuries comes with its own list of traditions that made it what it is today and I found that the people in Spain still hold these traditions in the highest regards whether it be their Jamon, Queso, Vino, or other products related to the land.
The people I met in Spain, whether living urban or rural, all seemed to show a great respect for the past.
My research in Spain had been inspired because I feel it is important that we tie these wonderful animals, the land that supports them and the people that make their incredible products together for a more sustainable picture of what sustains us.
When it comes to the cheese and especially the Manchego I found that there were several things of note:
(1) The traditional breed of Manchega sheep, mostly because they have adapted to the arid region. These sheep are quite recognizable by a prominant high ridge above their nose.
"For the past 22 autumns, shepherds have led herds through the city,
exercising the right to seasonal livestock migration routes that existed
before Madrid grew from a rural hamlet to the great city it is today.
Increasingly, these routes have been threatened by urban sprawl."
NBC News Oct. 25, 2015
Shepherds lead their sheep through the center of Madrid on Oct. 25.
.... photo credit Daniel Ochoa de Olza / AP
(3) Finally the process of making the cheese, although it is changing with commercial pressure still has full respect of the consumers. The rennet was originally produced on the farm either from the natural stomach linings of the sheep and in some areas where the sheep were not butchered frequently, the use of the Cardoona (thistle) flower was used as a source of enzymes for coagulation.
Also for pressing cheese, a simple rock was all that was required. I still see this method quite often on the traditional farms. No need for an expensive press and weights for the past generations.