Welcome to the land of Manchego.
Spain is a great complex country full of delicious cheeses. Every major region has a unique cheesemaking culture, and huge pride on their regional difference. From the Basque Country, to the Canary Islands, to Castille – La Mancha, to Catalonia, cheeses are a huge part of Spanish gastronomy, however they are highly undiscovered outside of every region, and seldom recognized as an integral part of local culture and folklore.
In recent years you have probably noticed an influx of Spanish cheeses in your local cheese counters. These newer arrivals have joined Manchego, by far the most famous Spanish cheese, with names like Garroxta, Mahon, Nevat, Monte Enebro, and Cabrales. Many of them like Idiazabla and Tetilla, proudly bear the DOP logo and are distinctly European.
Until very recently, cheese was only a family affair, not considered worthy of the attention of the larger gastronomic movement that propelled Spanish cuisine to the top of the critics’ lists. There are now a couple of stores and restaurants taking the time to showcase the great diversity of Spanish cheesemaking and dedicating time to spread the word about its long culture and complexity.
Tapas bars in the San Sebastian, Barcelona, and Madrid, have always had one or two tapas centered on a specific cheese. Everywhere in Spain, cheese is normally served as an after meal dish, normally presented by itself or with some local honey. In true Mediterranean fashion, cheese sandwiches are also a common option for lunch, and are easy to grab in any train station, as you get ready to board your train to explore this fantastic country.
If you are visiting Madrid for the first time and would like to find excellent cheese options, head for the Mercado de San Miguel. This market is located near the Palacio Real and the Puerta del Sol, the nearest subway station is Opera (lines 2 and 5). In San Miguel cheese stalls, sell small plates, along side wine establishments and cured meat stands that I promise will make you rethink your relationship to food, fat, and the pace of life. You could easily spend a whole afternoon sampling cheese, while you make new friends over a glass of wine.
In addition to this formal market, there are other traditional markets, which will have a cheese stall, where you will be able to sample from very young to the very aged Manchegos. Other options will come from the Basque Country and Galicia, but if you have the opportunity to try cheeses from the Canary Islands do not hesitate, they are rare even in Spain and their flavors speak of a different land off the cost of Africa.
If you prefer to have a seat-down meal and sample unique cheese, expertly sourced and matured, make a reservation for dinner at Poncelet Cheese Bar located at Calle de Jose Abascal 61, Gregorio Marañon subway station (lines 7 and 10). You can reserve on Poncelet’s website.
The family behind this establishment knows what they are doing. The Cheese Bar offers a dinner menu centered around cheese, but you can also pop-up for a cocktail with a small plate of cheese to open your appetite before you head to one of the many Michelin start restaurants in the Spanish capital. If you want to bring back cheese to the US, Poncelet also runs a store, with one of the most impressive selections of Spanish cheese in the world. The store is located at Calle Argensola 27, near the Alonso Martinez subway station (lines 4, 5, and 10).
Hope you enjoy your visit, y Ole!