“To refer to Mahón-Menorca cheese is to speak of dedication, tradition and respect for the environment, culture and customs from Menorca Island.” –Quintana family, master cheese ripening affinadores.
Written by Leska Tomash – First, a quick geography lesson and run-down on Mahón cheese.
Mahón is the capital and port of Menorca, Spain, the most northerly of the Balearic Islands–and little brother to Majorca– in the Mediterranean Sea. Mahón has been crafting its eponymous cheese with ancient techniques dating back to around 3,000 BC. This cheese, made only with Mahónese cow milk from Menorca, is one of the few cow’s milk cheeses from Spain.
So, to distinguish, there are small, family dairy farms on the island who raise the old breed of Mahónese cows and produce an initial-stage soft cheese. Then there is the cheese ripening and maturation process carried out by afinadores (affineurs, in French, or “refiners:” a person responsible for producing and maturing the cheese).
The long-established and respected Hijo de F. Quintana family, along with the Triay Barber family, has employed ancient ripening practices to create tangy, sharp, lemony (with a hint of spice from a paprika rub) semi curado Mahón (aged 3-4 months) and curado Mahón (aged 8-9 months). They press and mold the cheese by hand in a fogasser– Catalan for “cloth”–which separates the cheese curds from the whey.
This maturation process takes skill, knowledge and passion on the part of afinadores. What else makes Quintana Mahón so special?
Really, it all begins with the land and the environment. The small rocky island has a mild climate and heavy rainfall with “sea winds and high atmospheric humidity [which] irrigates the pastures, giving the milk a high acidity and a touch of saltiness.” The island has about 1,000 species of plants in the windswept fields of Menorca. All this varied grazing for the cows adds to complexity of the milk. In fact, with all of its plant life, Menorca was declared a Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization).
So those Mahónese cows “graze freely in the rich grass bathed by the sun and irrigated by the unique maritime environment” (Quintana website). Quintana sources soft raw milk cheese from one small cheesemaker called Binicano with only 40 cows. The milk is always unpasteurized and the “curd is never cooled until after the cheese has been set (protecting the milk’s delicate flavor).”
The land, the sea, the cows, the milk, the ripening process–all of this comes through in the complexity of the flavor. It literally is an award-winning cheese.
Quintana Mahon won 2013, 2017 & 2018 “Best DOP Artisanal Cheese of the Year” by the Ruling Council on DOP (Protected Denomination of Origin). The Board of Control of Mahón-Menorca cheese in Spain was awarded 14 medals at the 2018-19 cheese World Cheese Awards in Norway. More than 3,400 cheeses from 41 different countries entered the competition in the world’s largest cheese-only event. Quintana earned a Bronze medal in the category of Hard DOP.
Ari Weinzeig, author and co-owner of Zingerman’s Delicatessan in Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA (as well several other food-related businesses), says Quintana Mahón is “one of the tastiest, if least known, cheeses on the Deli’s counter right now… the current batch is particularly excellent.”
Clearly Quintana Mahón is a real cheesemonger’s cheese.
So how do you eat it? How does it taste?
This farm-made Quintana Mahon is intensely flavorful. It has a crumbly cheddar-like texture and tangy, Locals enjoy it with extra virgin olive oil (Ari suggests adding pinches of black pepper and tarragon). Weinzeig says, “I enjoy it most at about nine or ten months—like what we have now [at Zingermann’s Delicatessen]—when they’ve developed the texture of an aged Gouda, and a nutty, almost smoky flavor.” He suggests pairing the aged Mahon with almonds or dried fruit and fresh bread, or just let a chunk come up to room temperature for optimal flavor and nibble away! In the New York Times last year Florence Fabricant recommended melting Mahon atop casseroles, potatoes, or pasta.
Any way you slice it, melt it, grate it or sprinkle it–this is an outstanding cheese.