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Quality over quantity

Taking a look at the main varieties from all over the country

Up until a few years ago, it was relatively easy to list Portugal’s quality cheeses: Serra, Azeitão, Serpa, Nisa, all made from sheep’s milk, and the Azorean Ilha de São Jorge cheese, made from cow’s milk.

Of course we knew of other cheeses, but only in recent years have they standardised their production methods, with some even meriting the classification of Protected Designation of Origin (DOP) or Protected Geographical Indication (IGP).

Today, despite not having the same variety as countries like France, Italy, Spain and the UK, we could say that Portugal has a good selection of cheeses, even though they’re almost all made from sheep and goats’ milk.

However, for those who want to make a cheeseboard using exclusively quality Portuguese products, there’s much to choose from. Not only are there more cheeses made from sheep’s milk, goats’ milk or a mixture of both, or even cows’ milk (although always from the Azores), the diversity of the type of paste and flavour characteristics have also increased.

In regards to goats’ cheese, we have examples from the Algarve, Beiras, Guadiana, Pinhal Maior and even a DOP cheese, the Queijo de Cabra Transmontano. They can be of a hard paste, or even “extra hard”, like the Transmontano, but also “fresh” like the Beiras cheese, available in the “dry” and “cured” varieties, the Algarve cheese (which is also “dry”) and the Guadiana (where just 25% of the produce is of the “dry” variety). Or it can be “cured” and dipped in olive oil, like in Pinhal Maior. Worthy of mention when referring to fresh goats’ cheese, although they can be mixed with other types of milk, are the saloios from the Lisbon area.

A final reference is the Pur Chèvre cheese produced in Azambuja (more specifically in the Maçussa locality) from Saanen goats’ milk, an imitation of the famous French cheeses of the same name, including the way it’s rolled in “ash” (in fact dried vegetable that’s turned into ash and sterilised) covered with the traditional white mould. They have been extremely well received, especially in top-class restaurants where they are used in the most varied of recipes.

Before moving on to the numerous sheep’s cheeses, we must touch upon the two goat/sheep blends: the IGP-certified Queijo Mestiço de Tolosa (north Alentejo) and the famous Rabaçal (Coimbra area), designated as a DOP. The first, a semi-soft paste, is cured, whilst the second is also cured but with a drier consistency.

There are also those from Beira Baixa, both DOP,  the Amarelo and the Picante, with the latter being an interesting variation to any gourmet cheeseboard.

But a Portuguese cheeseboard shines the most with sheep’s cheese. Alongside the four aforementioned cheeses, there’s also the hard and salty Queijo de Évora (DOP), the Queijo Tomar, small with a semi-hard paste, Queijo de Castelo Branco, one of the oldest in Portugal and with similarities to the famous Serra da Estrela but which only recently received the DOP qualification, and the Terrincho from Trás-os-Montes, a DOP that has been a great success amongst connoisseurs in recent years, with the peculiarity of being aged in rye grain or placed in jars in pieces immersed in olive oil.

Amongst the cheeses made from cows’ milk, worthy of mention is the cheese from the island of Pico in the Azores, which is very different to its famous “brother” from São Jorge. Also DOP-certified, it has a soft paste, is cured and has a low cylindrical shape, as opposed to São Jorge, which is a semi-hard or even hard paste placed in cylinders that can reach 35cm tall.

For the lovers of milk produce, we must also mention the superb requeijão cottage cheese from the cheese-producing regions of Serra da Estrela and Serpa, and a famous DOP-designated butter made from sheep’s milk from the same area as Azeitão cheese.

As you can see, there isn’t much diver¬sity in Portugal’s produce, but there’s more than enough to please any palate. We must also bear in mind that some of these cheeses, homemade from raw milk (non-pasteurised) from small flocks of indigenous breeds that are fed solely in pastures, aren’t always easily found on the market, especially at certain times of the year.

There are however small producers who have understood the advantage of standing out for their quality and are organising themselves to achieve the DOP or IGP qualifications, which would enable them to keep their traditional processes and use raw milk within the approved EU regulations.

Knowing that Portugal has excellent bread, increasingly better wines (amongst which is the one and only Port) and exceptional fruit (especially grapes, apples and dried fruit) – or rather, the perfect accompaniments to cheese – a Portuguese cheeseboard will provide pleasant surprises to even the most demanding palates.

Over 300 different cheeses, including 100 from Portugal, are available from the Apolónia Supermarkets in Almancil and Galé.