The half-wheels of Moncedillo Original and Red cheese sit on a wooden cutting board on my countertop at home…
…I putter around my apartment for a bit, letting the cheese come up to room temperature. I slice a small wedge of each and place them completely unadorned on a small white plate. I pour a glass of rose and take the cheese and wine to my small deck overlooking the cityscape of Portland, Maine where I live. It had been a sweltering July day, but now, at dusk, a cool breeze blows through. I try the Original first—buttery with a hint of tangy sweetgrass and nutty hazelnut. I savor that flavor for a moment then try the Red. Although I trimmed off the Pimenton-dusted rind, the distinct smokiness of paprika fills my mouth, but not intrusively. I gaze out at the sliver of Atlantic I can see over the trees and rooftops and think about the small dairy factory on the other side of that great ocean.
Moncedillo is a small cheese and yogurt factory located in the small Spanish town Cedillo de la Torre with just over 100 people. Cedillo de la Torre is in the province of Segovia in the Castilla y Leon region which, in the last 20 years, has become home to 80 cheese factories producing 66% of all sheep’s milk produced in Spain, according to the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock.
In years past, an exodus of rural Spain’s youth to the cities created the problematic issue of rural depopulation. But in recent years, there has been a resurgence into the area of Castilla y Leon. People from all lines of work unrelated to rural economy are returning to communities in the region, looking for a different, slower way of life.
Joaquin Manchado Munoz and his wife Esther Garcia, the cheese makers and owners of Moncedillo, moved away from the city and years in the movie industry to rural Cedillo de la Torre where Esther is originally from. The couple, like many others in the area, moved there with the intention of owning a rural business.
And so, in 2011, Moncedillo was born. Joaquin and Esther used milk from Esther’s cousin’s flock of sheep comprised of 85% Churra and 15% Assaf sheep–breeds that took generations to create and whose milk has been awarded many times for its quality. Moncedillo began hand-producing some of the finest raw sheep’s milk yogurts and cheeses of the region.
At Rogers Collection, we offer three Moncedillo raw sheep’s milk cheeses: Original, Madurado (aged) and Red (Pimenton-dusted rind). Before I get into the specifics and differences of these three cheeses, there are some consistencies to all of them: the high-quality sheep’s milk is collected and made into cheese on the same day to avoid storage and loss of quality; the cheeses are manually molded and brushed; and, despite flavor variations among the three cheeses, there is the distinguishable taste and smell evoked by the mountainous landscape of rock-roses, Holm oak, juniper, scrub and and a clear aroma of dried fruit.
Another technique of note is the use of thistle vegetable rennet, or cuajo vegetal, rather than animal rennet in the Original and Red. Although the use of vegetable rennet is not traditional in the area, Moncedillo chooses thistle rennet for the Original and the Red because it achieves the desired texture in those two cheeses–creamier and more spreadable (the madurado is meant to be firm, therefore animal rennet is more suitable). Thistle rennet also makes the cheese consumable for vegetarians. However, it is more complicated to use than animal rennet. If the proportion of thistle rennet is not right, the cheese becomes bitter and ages too fast. So the process takes time, skill and attention. Those are things Moncedillo diligently applies to the hand-production of their cheeses. And the efforts show in the taste and aroma–and look!
The appearance for the Original and the Red is quite unique. They are drained, rather than pressed, which creates a semi-soft paste. Next, the curds are gently ladled into traditional basket molds, turned frequently in the first few hours, allowing for a striking basket pattern to develop on the rind.
And how do they taste?
Moncedillo Original raw sheep’s milk cheese holds a rich, buttery texture followed by hints of hazelnut with aromas of sweet grasses and dried fruit. I was hard-pressed to think of a better way to eat it than completely unaccompanied; however, I paired thin slices with a chilled grain and vegetable salad with aged balsamic vinegar and that was quite delicious, too! This cheese has a natural rind and it is aged for 60 days.
And, oh, the Moncedillo Red! The red hue, of course, from dusting the rind with bittersweet Pimenton de La Vera (also known as “paprika”). The Pimenton is dusted on the rind at about day four of production. The blend of ground, dried, smoked peppers lends the cheese a gentle smokiness into the paste and vibrant hue to the rind. The flavor is a harmonious blend of sweetness, smoke and light fruitiness. You can eat the rind or trim it, depending on your preference. I opted to trim the rind, and even so, the smoky, tangy sweetness permeates the creamy cheese in just the right amount! The price is a bit higher than the Original, due to the cost of the Pimenton and the labor of slowly dusting and handling the cheese, but it is truly worth it for this unusual flavor profile.
The Moncedillo Madurado is a hard, pressed cheese aged for three to four months with an ivory color and a complex aroma of forest mushrooms, roasted nuts and hints of wood spice with an elegant acidity and persistent finish. It has a natural rind, but it is recommended to trim it. Although it is edible, it doesn’t add much to the flavor profile. Again, this cheese is so delicious solo, but experiment! I found the flavors were highlighted nicely with some crusty bread with olive oil and a little cracked pepper.
Joaquin and Esther wanted to leave behind the fast-paced life of the city and the movie industry–and create a cheese and yogurt factory based in slowing down, traditional technique, revitalizing a rural community in Castilla y Leon and, of course, making a delicious, high-quality product.
We think they nailed it.
Written by Leska Tomash
Photos by Manuel Uzcanga Meinecke