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Photo by Patricia Esteve
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Photo by Patricia Esteve
The first cured farmhouse-made Mahóns of the season will be appearing in stores this month, after 150 days of carefully tended ageing. These box-shaped cheeses, with their distinctive rounded edges, fold-like markings and beautiful deep orange-gold rinds are one of the gastronomic jewels of the Balearic islands, and have long been so.
Archaeological remains suggest cheese was made on Menorca in prehistoric times; in the 11th century, the Arab historian Ashashaskandi praised Menorca’s “good cattle and vines that are used to make good cheese and wine”. The archives of the Crown of Aragon document the importance of cheese production on the island from the 15th century. Around that time, a Tuscan trading company, which purchased wool from Menorca, was forced to also buy cheese as part of the deal. They didn’t seem too impressed with it and sold it on as soon as they could to the neighbouring Mallorcans. To this day, Mallorca is still the biggest market for Mahón cheese.
Eventually, though, Italians seem to have grown a liking for Menorca’s dairy products. A British engineer living on the island in the 18th century said Mahón was even preferred to Parmesan in some parts of Italy. At the time, there were four boats dedicated solely to transporting Mahón cheese to Genoa. It was these new consumers who named the cheese after its port of origin, even though much of the cheese was actually made elsewhere on Menorca.
Because so much cheese was exported, it had to be cured to withstand the sea journeys. It was not until the 19th century that the art of ageing the cheese was truly perfected, with the emergence of professional ‘cheese maturers’ or ‘master curers’. These were usually agricultural merchants, who would travel the island selling items like seeds and tools. In return, they would often receive freshly made cheeses as payment. The master curers would then take these to their houses, where special curing cellars had been built, enabling control of the ageing conditions down to the minutest detail. The curers could even tell whether a wind was good or bad for the cheese and would open the cellar windows accordingly.
This long and unique history was finally given official recognition in 1985, when Mahón cheese was awarded its own Denominación de Origen Protegida (DOP) certification by the government.
But what actually makes Mahón so unique? For a start, the island of Menorca, which is a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, has a special microclimate. It is the wettest Balearic island, with high rainfall and high atmospheric humidity, but generally mild temperatures. This, and its relative flatness, make for good grazing land, and the sea winds add a distinctive touch of saltiness to the pasture. The cows, a mix of Friesians and a native Menorcan breed, graze freely in fields separated by the island’s distinctive traditional dry stone walls.
One of the most interesting things about Mahón cheese, for anyone who cares about what they eat, is the fact that the majority of producers still use traditional farmhouse methods. Cheese from these makers is labelled ‘Artisanal Mahón-Menorca cheese’, which signifies it has been made with untreated (unpasteurised) milk in authorised dairies. These producers are often small farmers who have been making Mahón for generations, according to methods handed down through the centuries. They’ll make cheese twice a day, after each milking, from late September to early June (the months of peak milk production).
The curd is made with animal rennet and put into cloth moulds called fogassers. It’s then hand-pressed to get rid of excess liquid and tied as tightly as possible with a special tie called a lligam. After that it’s pressed mechanically for a few hours. The pressing leaves an imprint of the cloth on the resulting cheese—this mamella is one of Mahón’s distinctive hallmarks.
After pressing, the cheese is soaked in a highly concentrated brine for one to two days, then it is cleaned, dried and left to air, before it is taken to be matured, often by a professional maturer. During the ageing process the cheeses are turned, and the rind may be rubbed with olive oil and sometimes paprika, which helps preserve the cheese and adds colour.
There are three types of Mahón cheese, classified by age. The tierno (matured 21-60 days) has the palest, softest, most elastic flesh. It also has the mildest flavour: buttery, lightly acidic and slightly salty. It’s good for making light creamy cheese sauces in savoury dishes.
The semi-curado (matured two to five months) is still fairly mild, with a flesh that retains some elasticity, but shows signs of its maturity in its golden colour and slightly piquant flavour, contrasting with nutty and buttery notes. The cut flesh should show a number of irregular holes. Its balance of sweet and savoury flavours makes it a favourite ingredient in inventive desserts.
Mahón curado (matured more than five months) is the version with the biggest personality. Its deep orange to toffee-brown flesh is harder and crumblier than its younger siblings, with crunchy lactose crystals in the older versions. Its aromas and flavours suggest wood, smoke, leather, caramel, nuts and spice. It’s a wonderfully intense tapa or dessert, simply cut in slices and served with fruit and nuts.
For more information on Mahón cheese, visit: www.quesomahonmenorca.com
RECIPE: The Consejo Regulador Denominacion de Origen of Mahón-Menorca cheese recently ran a two-day course in Barcelona’s CETT catering school, showcasing how the cheese is used by some of Catalunya’s top chefs in their kitchens, with demonstrations by Carles Gaig of Restaurant Gaig and Jordi Herrera of Manairó, amongst others. Here’s a simple, stylish starter from Montse Estruch of Cingle restaurant in Vacarisses:
100g cream and 100g milk
200g cured Mahón-Menorca cheese, cut into small dice
3g agar agar
200g trompetas negras mushrooms
200g ham stock
100g cured Mahón-Menorca cheese, grated
Some germinated sprouts for garnish
For 4 servings
Gently boil the cream, milk and cheese, until the cheese has melted. Sieve, add the agar agar, bring back just to the boil, pour into shot glasses and leave to set.
Sauté the mushrooms (while keeping some aside for garnish) with a little olive oil, sprinkle with a pinch of finely chopped thyme and add the stock. Blend it all until smooth and season to taste.
Make some cheese crisps: spread the grated cheese over a lined baking tray and bake in the oven at 100ºC until crisp, then cool a little and break up into pieces.
Pour a layer of mushroom sauce over the cheese cream in each shot glass, and decorate with cheese crisps, mushrooms and the sprouts.
First published February 2008.