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Small Cheese from a Big Landscape

Sometimes it’s the small things that give the greatest pleasure. Ursula Heinzelmann reports on the small golden-yellow sheep’s milk cheeses that tell of their homeland in the Alentejo and the lives of generations of shepherds.

Illustration by Anja Salzer

Wild and far removed from all the madding crowds. At first the Alentejo’s great emptiness, down in the south of Portugal seems unapproachable, but then it reveals its wealth and beauty, flavours, stories… The soul of this landscape is captured in the small round sheep’s milk cheeses from Évora. Finger high, not quite as large as your palm and ochre-coloured, they look thoroughly unspectacular, as you might expect for the everyday cheese of shepherds roaming the vast meadows of the Alentejo with their flocks. Contemporary cheese makers in the small dairies around Évora tell the story of how in earlier centuries their ancestors followed them and the animals, like gypsies.

When hand-made from local milk Queijo de Ovelha taste of the sun-beaten landscape that is their origin. Eaten young and still elastic they taste quite salty, like many other Mediterranean cheeses, but nevertheless have a wonderful balance of opulence and freshness. After ripening six to nine months they look dry, but taste surprisingly and beautifully mellow, almost melting in your mouth. Then you discover in them aromas reminiscent of butterscotch and dried bananas, although behind this, like the dying rays of the setting sun, is always a fresh acidity. This is due not only to the herbal character of raw sheep’s milk, but also the thistle extract used to curdle that milk.

It’s said that making cheese with the extract of thistle flowers, rather than animal rennet, was developed in the almost 2,000 metre high Serra da Estrela Mountains in the Beira region to the north, close to the border with Spain. The spiny relatives of the artichoke feel at home on the stony and rugged slopes of those mountains, just as the sheep flocks roaming them. This “alpine” landscape is completely different to that around Évora, and the cheese from there is so creamy and buttery you can eat it with a spoon, but its acidity is similar to Queijo de Ovelha. Whether the shepherds during Roman times found it easier to collect thistle flowers rather than prepare lambs’ stomachs for their rennet isn’t known, but this practice in the region certainly goes back that far.

The method strongly marks the cheeses made with it, because the enzymes contained in thistle extract are far more active in the cheese vat than those of rennet would be. This quickly gives cows milk cheese a bitter note. Being more concentrated, sheep’s milk has enough richness to counter this effect, and the cheese made using thistle extract develop a distinctive lemony acidity with age. 

Particularly in higher latitudes when the days draw in, when the sun rarely shows itself, and the thermometer struggles to climb even a few degrees, such a small Queijo de Ovelha beams you back to wild and empty Alentejo. This form of aromatherapy works best in combination with one of the region’s red wines, for example, a dark Alicante Bouschet with its wild fruit that brings the heat haze of the arid Alentejo summer directly to your glass. Then wine and cheese magnify each other’s lust for life.

 

Article by Ursula Heinzelmann.