Produced in Castile La Mancha, in Spain, Manchego is probably the best known of the Spanish sheep's milk cheeses.
Production of Manchego has been regulated since 1984, and authentic Manchego can only be made exclusively from whole milk of the Manchega sheep, raised in the La Mancha region.
Despite being similar in size and type, cheeses made outside the designated region of La Mancha are known as "Manchego style" cheeses, and cannot legally be named Manchego.
The region consists of a vast, high plateau, more than 600 meters (2,600ft.) above sea level, that extends between the adjoining provinces of Toledo, Cuenca, Ciudad Real and Albacete, all in the Castile-La Mancha Autonomous Region, southeast of Madrid.
The shape of Manchego is very characteristic and defined, due to the traditional use of esparto grass molds which leave an imprinted zigzag pattern on the sides of the cheese. The small wooden boards used for pressing mark the typical wheat ear pattern into the top and bottom of the wheels.
Although Manchego has a long, historic tradition, today there are two basic types of Manchego produced - a farmhouse version made with unpasteurized sheep's milk, and the industrial type, that can be made with either pasteurized of unpasteurized milk. However, in both cases, milk from Manchega sheep is the only type used and the cheese is produced in clearly defined regions where the climate is extremely continental, with cold winters and hot summers.
The texture of young cheeses (semi curado - 3 months of age) is relatively moist and supple, with a pale, cream-colored paste. Aromas are of slightly sour cream and cheesecake, while flavors are of hay, grass and fruit, with sweet, tangy notes.
As cheeses mature (curado - 6 months), flavors mellow and become more rounded, with notes of caramel and nuts, while maintaining a pronounced acidity. The Viejo cheeses (aged one year) have a texture that is drier and more crumbly and the interior is butterscotch-colored. The flavor is sweet and lingering.
Manchego pairs extremely well with a glass of fino sherry and a slice of fig cake.