Before we traveled to Portugal, I had not tried Portuguese cheese. Once in the country, however, it did not take more than one trip to a breakfast buffet or a sit-down to dinner, before cheese entered the conversation, and I’m so happy it did! Two of the most flavorful cheeses Tom and I sampled on our recent travels in Portugal–Serra da Estrela and Azeitão–were developed from the same recipe. Both are produced using the colorful artichoke thistle to develop the curd.
Artichoke thistles are used as a vegetarian source of enzymes for cheese production, with traditional coagulation of the curd relying entirely on this vegetable rennet. For centuries, shepherds in the mountainous Beira region have produced a soft, almost spreadable, cheese from sheep’s milk: Serra da Estrela, with an intense aroma and a tangy, lingering finish; and Azeitão, a diminutive cousin of the famous cheese, is made south of Lisbon, following a recipe brought to the region from Beira.
Serra da Estrela
We enjoyed “the king of Portuguese cheese” at restaurants all over Portugal, but were eager to try the cheese on its home turf. We were delighted to have an opportunity to see production of Serra-styled cheese at the family-owned Queijaria Artisanal do Ilidio in Juncais, where we sampled a variety of cheeses being prepared for introduction to the North American market.
Azeitão is an unpasteurized sheep’s milk cheese hand-crafted at the foot of the Arrabida Mountains in the regions of Setúbal, Palmela and Sesimbra. Production there began when a shepherd brought his sheep and a recipe from Serra da Estrela.
Made using the same techniques as its famous kin, Azeitão is produced in rounds weighing no more than 250 grams. The curds are thickened with vegetable rennet derived from artichoke thistles and the cheese has an affinage of 20 days. Cold humidity produces Azeitão that is creamy and buttery in texture, needed to qualify the cheese for DOP designation.
We visited wine and cheese producer Alcube, in the Setúbal region. Produced without refrigeration, the farm’s cheese is creamy, with a little spicy bitterness from the herbs that flourish in the Arrabida micro-climate. It may not be DOP, but it’s delicious!
Food travel, food memories
Both Serra da Estrela and Azeitão cheeses evoke the spirit of the mountains and rugged foothills of Portugal. Perhaps a landscape such as this was recalled by the shepherd who carried memories of Serra da Estrela with him to the Arrabida Mountains?
Want to know more?
Step over to Julie Dawn Fox in Portugal, and see How to Make and Eat Serra da Estrela Cheese.
Andrea Smith’s Ultimate User’s Guide to Portuguese Cheese provides a great introduction to the cheeses of Portugal, offering a detailed description of the different types produced, as well as a helpful rundown on the terminology used on menus and product labels. She also suggests pairings for Portuguese cheeses and wines.
In Lisbon, stop in at Manteigaria Silva in Mercado da Ribeira, and ask for a cheese sampler, served with your choice of wines. We tried four different selections of Serra da Estrela there: aged for 40 days, for four months, for eight months and for one year. Que diferença!
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Thank you to APTECE, the Portuguese Culinary Tourism and Economic Association, and Turismo de Portugal, for making our travels possible. We visited Setúbal District and the Mercado da Ribeira with Taste of Lisboa.
To see all our travel stories from Portugal, click here.