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 the whole milk of Manchega sheep, raised in the La Mancha region. Because of these regulations, cheeses made outside the designated region of La Mancha are known as "Manchego style" cheeses—despite being similar in size and type—and cannot legally be named Manchego.
The La Mancha 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 cheese is produced in clearly defined regions where the climate is extremely continental, with cold winters and hot summers.
Manchego's shape is 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 the cheese mark the Manchego's typical wheat ear pattern into the top and bottom of the wheels.
Manchego has a long tradition, and today there are two basic types of Manchego produced: farmhouse versions made with unpasteurized sheep's milk, and the industrial versions that can be made with either pasteurized or unpasteurized milk. Still, in both cases, milk from Manchega sheep is the only type used.
The texture of young cheeses (semi curado - 3 months of age) is relatively moist and supple, with a pale, cream-colored paste. More mature versions (viejo - aged one year) have a texture that is drier and more crumbly and a butterscotch-colored paste.
Younger versions of Manchego have aromas of slightly sour cream and cheesecake and sweet, tangy flavors with notes of hay, grass, and fruit. As cheeses mature (curado - 6 months), the flavors mellow and become more rounded, gaining notes of caramel and nuts, while maintaining a pronounced acidity. The flavor is sweet and lingering.
Manchego pairs well with a glass of fino sherry and a slice of fig cake.