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 first visits to Portugal–Serra da Estrela and Azeitão–were developed from the same recipe. And 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. 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
On our early travels to Portugal, Tom and I enjoyed Serra da Estrela cheese at restaurants all over the country, and “the king of Portuguese cheese” became a staple at our table as soon as we moved here. In 2014, the cheese was added to the Ark of Taste, the international catalogue of endangered heritage foods maintained by the global Slow Food movement. Variations on tradition include cheeses mixing the milk of sheep and cows, such as several produced in the Estrela demarcated region–without a DOP label, but with plenty of intriguing flavor. Rounds swabbed with paprika during affinage take on an earthy flavor.
Our first understanding of the traditional process for making the cheese came on a visit to the Beira region, where we had a chance to try Serra-styled cheese on its home turf. We spent most of a day at the family-owned Queijaria Artisanal do Ilidio in Juncais, where we saw production of Serra-styled cheese and sampled a variety of cheeses.
José Ilidio has been around cheese production his entire life. Learning the craft from his father, he eventually began producing his own cheeses, in a home kitchen. In 2001, the business went mainstream, with the opening of a factory, where his team produces wonderful Serra-style cheeses, soft and dry-cured.
Serra da Estrela cheese DOP is aged on a wooden plank, and bound with a muslin “bandage” to help the cheese hold its shape. Cheese makers at Queijaria Artisanal do Ilidio follow the same protocols, bathing and re-wrapping wrap each round of cheese every 10 days, with an affinage period of one month.
“Cheese is my life!”
José offered us several samples, and showed us how different jams, and local honey, can alter the character of the cheese. We quickly learned that Serra-style cheese is especially good with walnuts and dry-cured, thin-sliced black pork. After showing us around his factory, José joined us for dinner, where he asked the restaurant to surprise us with a personal favorite: salt cod stuffed with cheese from Queijaria Artisanal do Ilidio. Two Portuguese traditions in a single dish!
Food travel, food memories
Both Serra da Estrela and Azeitão cheeses evoke the spirit of a rugged Portuguese landscape. Perhaps a landscape of mountains and rugged foothills was recalled by the shepherd who carried memories of Serra da Estrela with him to the Arrabida Mountains?
Back home, our stash of cheese from Portugal was shared with friends and neighbors, as we watched the World Cup together. Switzerland lost that match, but the Serra-style cheese– served with red-fruit jam or honey, as we had enjoyed the cheese in Juncais–was a definite winner.
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.
Gaspar Henriques de Paiva also brought a cheesemaker to Azeitão each year, and eventually that cheesemaker shared his methods with villagers, who passed them on to successive generations.
Made using the same techniques as its famous kin, but from the raw milk of sheep nurtured in the low mountains south of Lisbon, Azeitão has its own singularity: a buttery, closed-textured paste and a clean taste that mixes acidity and salty flavor with a touch of bitterness and spice.
The cheese is made with the addition of only salt and thistle–Cynara cardunculus–to develop the curds. Azeitão is produced in rounds weighing no more than 250 grams and with 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. At Alcube, production is small leagues, about 100 kilos per day, and the cheese is made without refrigeration. No matter, the farm’s cheese is still 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!
To appreciate Azeitão cheese to the fullest, it should be aired at room temperature for 20-30 minutes before serving, to maximize its characteristic aroma and flavor. With its soft rind peeled back, the cheese can be dipped into with a spoon, just like Serra da Estrela, or cut quarters and sliced.This petite round is just the right size for an aperitif with a glass of wine or as a pre-dessert finale to a fancy meal.
Want to know more?
Step over to Julie Dawn Fox in Portugal, and see How to Make and Eat Serra da Estrela Cheese.
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.