Our 11 favorite cheeses we tried in Portugal
Portuguese cheeses are varied and amazing, with many we don’t know exist. Like the wines, some are Protected Designation of Origin cheeses, guaranteed to be produced in a designated area using traditional ingredients and methods. Fresh, creamy, chewy or gooey, Portugal’s cheese constellation has something for everyone. Many small towns are actually quite famous for their cheese. And cheeses can use raw or pasteurized cow’s, sheep’s or goat’s milk, or any combination thereof. There are so many cheeses in Portugal that we expect to make many new discoveries. But we wanted to share some of our latest favorites with you.
1. Sao Jorge Cheese
The beautiful islands of the Azores in Portugal are the main places to find cow’s milk cheeses. São Jorge has arguably the most popular cheese, named after the island itself. The milk comes from free-grazing cows as it has for 200 years. Sao Jorge Cheese is prized for its tangy, nutty flavor and smooth, semi-hard consistency. It is also a melting cheese, good for mixing with mashed potatoes, omelettes and even fondue. Of course, fresh bread is a great accompaniment to enjoy as is, and the flavor gets stronger with age. Diana’s dad liked it so much when she gave it to him that he ordered 7 books!
2. Évora cheese
On a recent visit to the historic city of Evora in the Alentejo region of Portugal, we discovered that there is a breed of sheep called merino which grazes freely in the pastures. The cheese making process uses thistle flower rather than animal rennet. One of our favorite ways to eat it is so indulgent and delicious that we now make it that way at home. We start with a large round loaf of Alentejo bread called pao cabeca, or “bread with a head”. It seems to bubble with a big bump on top. We cut off the head, hollow out the bread, put a round wheel of Évora cheese on it, peel a few cloves of garlic and push them into the cheese. Then we cook everything until the cheese is melting and the garlic is tender. We cut off the loaf head pieces and use them to dip in melted cheese. Yes, it is delicious and goes well with Portuguese wine.
3. Serra Da Estrela Cheese
Serra da Estrela cheese is the one that we and all our friends regularly look for. It is made in the Serra da Estrela region where there are mountains full of sheep grazing happily. Like Évora cheese, it is produced from thistle flower to curdle it, so it is considered vegetarian. It comes in different consistencies depending on the length of aging. The most popular version is soft and buttery, so creamy that we cut off the top of the cheese and scoop it out of bread, toast, crackers, apple slices, our fingers – whatever we can. It’s rich and gooey and absolutely wonderful. Sometimes Serra da Estrela cheese is called the “king of Portuguese cheese” due to its immense popularity.
4. Rabaçal Cheese (And Serras De Panela Cheese)
Many cheeses unique to Portugal get their distinctive flavors from using a blend of milks from different animals. Rabacal the cheese comes from an area of the Coimbra region towards the center of the country. It uses a mixture containing two-thirds sheep’s milk and one-third goat’s milk. The animals graze freely in pastures where a lot of local thyme grows, giving the milk a unique and specific flavor. It is a smooth, semi-hard cheese with a spicy flavor that lends itself well to accompaniments such as honey or jam.
Another mixed cheese from the nearby mountains, called Serras de Penela cheese, combines sheep’s and cow’s milk for a slightly sweeter and more delicate taste. Delicious versions come from Ansião in the Leiria district.
5. Serpa Cheese
serpa cheese is a semi-soft cheese made from raw sheep’s milk. It is made in the district of Beja in the Alentejo region near the Spanish border. Again, thistle is used to curdle cheese rather than animal rennet. It is one of the most famous cheeses in the region, probably because it has a strong, spicy flavor that goes very well with local cuisine and regional wines. It can be aged from 4 months to 2 years, and the longer it ages, the stronger the flavor. Serpa cheese is excellent served with bread and wine or as an ingredient in pork or ham dishes, especially the popular Porco Preto, or “black pig,” which comes from the free-range Iberian black pigs exclusively fed acorns in the Alentejo countryside. The rind of the cheese is orange in color after being brushed with olive oil and paprika during the process. Its texture is creamy when less aged and hard when aged to maturity.
6. Nisa Cheese
Nisa cheese from the Alentejo region uses milk from the saloio sheep known for its high quality milk. The cheese is unpasteurized and matured for at least 45 days. Using thistle to curdle the milk adds a flavorful dimension. Enjoy it on its own or included in dishes such as a vegetable quiche. Although made with thistle rennet, Nisa cheese is subtle, slightly sweet and creamy. This makes it perfect to accompany nuts, fruits, honey and jams. The production of Nisa cheese is still artisanal, with a few dozen small local creameries and farms making exceptional cheese. Nisa cheese is semi-hard and its flavor is rich and slightly acidic, pairing well with a full-bodied wine.
7. Azeitao Cheese
Just south of Lisbon is the region of Setúbal where another gooey, creamy cheese is made. Azeitao cheese made from unpasteurized sheep’s milk bears a striking resemblance to Serra da Estrela cheese in the north. The reason for this is that when a shepherd emigrated to the town of Azeitão, he brought with him black dairy sheep and cheese makers from his home in the north and encouraged the production of “serra” type cheeses like those that he loved. The resulting soft buttery cheese is quite similar to Serra da Estrela cheese, but is distinguished by a wilder, sweeter, grassier flavor that permeates the milk. To learn all about Azeitão cheese and maybe even take a cheese-making class, make an appointment at Azeitão Cheese Museum.
8. Graciosa Island Cheese
It was one of our most recent discoveries, and now we can’t get enough of it. Graciosa Island the cheese comes from the island of Graciosa in the Azores. The island has been classified by UNESCO as World Biosphere Reserve, designated as a place of learning for sustainable development. Graciosa Island cheese is a cow’s milk cheese that has been pasteurized and matured for at least 3 months. It develops a slightly tangy flavor with a firm texture when cut, melting into a creamy sweetness in the mouth. We think of it as a delicious sharp cheddar, perfect for slicing or dicing, and served with bread, toast, crackers and fruit. We discovered producers making Graciosa cheese with herbs and spices such as garlic, parsley, oregano or local pepper.
9. Transmontano Goat Cheese
Goat cheeses often elicit strong reactions for or against. Wherever you fall on the spectrum, Transmontano goat cheese of northern Portugal is worthy of consideration. The producers use serrana negra goat milk. The cheese can be young and relatively soft or aged up to 2 years, creating a harder and more pungent cheese. Sometimes the cheese will have a slight tint to the rind as it is often rubbed with olive oil or paprika. Locals in the Trás-os-Montes region enjoy it with rye bread and fabulous local red wine.
10. Sao Miguel Cheese
Another great island cheese, São Miguel cheese comes from the largest and most populated island of the Azores. It is made with pasteurized cow’s milk and matured for at least 9 months. Sao Miguel is nicknamed “the green island”, because only 5 percent of its land is used for commercial and residential purposes. This is probably the reason why happy cows graze freely in lush green grassy meadows, producing excellent milk. Although similar to the São Jorge cheese from its neighboring island, we find Sao Miguel to be a little creamier and a bit less tangy or pungent, but just as flavorful and satisfying. Delicious in cubes or slices, we also think São Miguel would be a great melting cheese in casseroles, au gratin potatoes, mac and cheese or on a sandwich.
11. Cottage cheese (Requeijão) and fresh cheese (Queijo Fresco)
These are two variations of soft cheese similar to a ricotta cheese. Requeijão is produced with leftovers from the cheese-making process. Cheese makers add milk to whey, heat it, then strain it to make a smooth, soft cheese. Traditionally, the cheese was wrapped in cabbage leaves and shipped in wicker baskets. The Serra da Estrela is known for its request cheese. Fresco Queijo, or “fresh cheese”, is made from lightly pressed cow’s milk curds and has a neutral flavor similar to farmhouse cheese or cottage cheese. These two soft and mild cheeses are refreshingly light. They can be served savory with herbs or sweetened with squares of quince paste, honey, nuts or jams.
Portuguese cheese pro tip
Try all the Portuguese cheeses you can. Even if it smells bad, it can be very sweet and good. Portugal is full of wonder, from surprising facts to mouth-watering food. So don’t be surprised if you too discover some new favorite cheeses you didn’t know existed.
Our The journey awaits you writers have become great experts on cheese: