If you thought La Mancha was only the setting for my father’s favorite musical, “The Man of La Mancha,” you’re wrong! It’s also the birthplace of Spain’s best-known and universally loved Manchego cheese. This fertile area of central Spain brings us many of my favorite things: wine, saffron and (wait for it) cheese! Lots of sheep = lots of delicious sheep’s-milk cheeses, and Manchego is a great introduction to the genre for those who have shied away from sheep’s-milk cheeses out of fear of a strong “sheepy” smell or taste.

Why do I like Manchego so much? It’s the perfect table cheese. Its mild, slightly sweet and wee-bit nutty taste make it a good match for almost any meal. (Consider it the O-negative of cheeses.) Last night my husband, friend Ariela and I enjoyed it with salad, corn and roasted red pepper soup and some crusty rolls, and it complemented the other foods quite nicely. Its semi-firm texture makes Manchego easy to slice, and the cheese lends itself well to snacking. Manchego is often paired with other Spanish specialties, like almonds or dulce de membrillo (quince paste), but it also goes well with apples and other fruits for snacking. One of my favorite dishes at my all-time favorite restaurant, Jaleo, pairs Manchego with green apples and a light vinaigrette in a simple salad. (Alas, the restaurant has altered the salad by adding fennel and walnuts – I prefer the classic.)

Spains best-known cheese gets some love from fragrant rosemary.

Spain's best-known cheese gets some love from fragrant rosemary.

For wine pairings with Manchego, stick with Spain! Tempranillo is the obvious choice, both for drinking straight and as the base of sangria (best beverage ever!). Other suggestions are Cabernet Sauvignon and Meritage, two moderately aged red wines that, according to WineFetch.com, “balance the sheepy, oily qualities of the cheese.” But not to worry, it’s really not that sheepy!

Vino Tinto con Manchego y Romero

Vino Tinto con Manchego y Romero

As I mentioned yesterday, you can sometimes find Manchego dressed up with rosemary. If you can’t find it at your local cheese shop, LaTienda.com stocks it. And while most Manchegos you’ll encounter in the United States are pasteurized, Colleen and I once had a raw-milk Manchego at a Cheesetique tasting cheese and loved the heightened flavors of the cheese. It’s also available at LaTienda.com, along with some other great Spanish cheeses. One of my sisters sent me the four-cheese sampler for my birthday this year (thanks, Mandy!). It’s always great to get cheese by mail.

Many thanks to Ariela for her cheese-styling assistance!