I love a good manchego, but my recent go-to cheese for entertaining guests (particularly those with timid palates) is a Spanish Idiazabal.

 

Idiazabal con membrillo

Idiazabal con membrillo

A sheep’s milk cheese that is lightly smoked for 1o days, it is firm, oily (in a good way) and flavorful without being overpowering. It hails from the Basque region and Artisanal Cheese recommends pairing with a full-bodied red wine from Navarra, which, coincidentally, is a budget-friendly choice as well. Because I was tasting bargain bubblies, and served this before our Hanukkah dinner, I sampled it with the Tarantas cava which was fruity enough to bring out the subtle smoky, grassy flavor of the cheese.

 

My favorite chef Jose Andres includes a recipe for rosemary-marinated Idiazabal in his book Tapas: A Taste of Spain in America. I have not yet tried Lima here in D.C., but they include Idiazabal on their Spanish cheese plate.

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!

For me, nothing. Well, maybe diamonds. Or a purse (Burberry or Coach, please). Or a night without my kid and/or cat waking me up. But cheese makes a fantastic gift this time of year – or anytime, of course. My co-worker Deanna had the fabulous idea of sending cheese baskets to our clients and VIPs this year as our agency holiday gift, and the two of us headed down to Premier Cheese Market this morning to speak with the owner, Ken, about putting together the perfect basket.

Our challenge: assembling a blend of tastes and textures when we don’t know what the recipients would prefer. Unless you’re giving cheese to a close friend or colleague with whom you’ve had in-depth discussions about cheese (other people do this, right?), it’s best to play it safe. Ken’s rules: No blues, no stinkies (a.k.a. washed-rind cheeses, like our friend Epoisses). What’s left? Not to fret – there’s a delicious assortment of cheeses at your disposal.

  • Manchego – Tune in tomorrow for my thoughts on this Spanish sheep’s-milk cheese, but in short, its mild, nutty flavor pleases many palates, including my picky husband’s. If you want to take it to the next level, look for a Manchego with rosemary. Cheesetique stocks it.
  • Gouda – A Lewis and Levine family favorite is the Prima Donna Gouda, also mild and sweet. Excellent for snacking with apples.
  • Cheddar – You all know my feelings about Cheddar. Ken recommends the Prairie Breeze Cheddar, produced by a collective of Amish farmers in Iowa.
  • If you want to go the creamy route, a basic Brie would serve you well. Ken also suggests the double-creme Fromage d’Affinois, which is also a French cow’s-milk cheese but is even silkier. Yum!
  • For the adventuresome willing to tread into goat’s-milk territory, a classic Bucheron is usually well-received since it resembles the chevre found in almost any grocery store these days. Patacabra is a good bet, too.
  • Smoked cheeses “can be challenging,” according to Ken, but they’re not off-limits. His suggestion: go for the higher-end smokies, like Spanish San Simon. It’s very man-friendly.

The thing to remember with cheese baskets: “The cheese stands alone” only applies to the song “The Farmer in the Dell.” Be sure to include a tasty assortment of crackers, dried fruit, nuts, olives, honey and chocolates in your basket. If your budget allows, add a bottle of wine. Ask your cheesemonger for a suggestion that will complement the cheeses you’ve selected.

Of course, if you’re too busy to make it to the cheese shop, there are a number of online options. New York institution Murray’s Cheese offers a variety of gift suggestions on its Web site. I know Colleen’s husband would approve of the Best with Beer package. Artisanal Cheese also has a great selection of cheese gifts – check out the American Artisanal Basket for its unique offerings. I have to give a shout-out to my home state by mentioning The Wisconsin Cheeseman’s gift baskets. I’d love to receive the Cheese Crate!

So take the plunge and go cheesy for the holidays. I bet you a hunk of Humboldt Fog that your friends will like it more than fruitcake.

spanish new years

Our New Year’s Eve Spanish sampler featured Gramona Gran Cuvee Cava (2003), two Spanish cheeses, drunken goat and mahon (cow’s milk aged in olive oil and paprika), lomo (cured pork), and roasted almonds. The Gramona is one of the few remaining family-owned estates producing cava in the Penedes region. Gramona cavas are aged significantly longer than most cavas, 30 months for the Gran Cuvee, producing a delightful, flavorful bubbly. The drunken goat is a semi-hard cheese aged in red wine (Doble Pasta) and is creamy and rich – make sure to let it sit at room temperature for at least one hour, preferably two. Mahon is a firmer, chewier cheese with a richness and lovely orange hue from the paprika. Salty lomo and almonds were perfect complements.