The delights of Vale da Estrela

Composit Queijaria Vale da Serra

Our grandfather loved cheese from Serra da Estrela, the highest mountain in continental Portugal. He used to buy most of the cheese made by a small producer. Half of this cache he offered to friends. The other half was consumed in our house, either fresh or cured with olive oil and paprika. Every day of the year there was cheese on the table.

We were delighted when Maria João Coelho invited us to visit Queijaria Vale da Estrela, her father’s new artisanal cheese workshop in Mangualde near Viseu. The first thing we noticed when we entered the workshop were the wonderful cheese aromas, so familiar from our childhood.

Jorge Coelho, Maria João’s father, showed us around. He inherited his love for cheese from his grandfather Raul, an “affineur” who procured the best Estrela cheese to sell to gourmet stores in Lisbon.

Serra cheese is made with only three ingredients: sheep milk, thistle flower, and salt. Vale da Estrela only uses milk from Bordaleira ewes, which are indigenous to Serra da Estrela. The precious milk is collected at night and processed immediately to guarantee the best results.

All the cheese is made by hand with rhythmic gestures that transform humble ingredientes into something transcendent. The whey left over from the production process is heated to make “requeijão,” a soft, ricotta-style cheese.

“We make very good cheese but our requeijão is the best in the world,” said Jorge Coelho with pride. We first admired the cheese with its firm texture and delicate taste. Then, we tried the requeijão. As professional requeijão eaters we sampled many wonderful specimens over the years. But nothing as sublime as the requeijão from Vale da Estrela with its silky texture, depth of flavor, and exceptional freshness.

You can generally find the cheese and requeijão from Vale de Serra in supermarkets throughout the country. But when there’s a special occasion in heaven these products disappear from the shelfs because angels come in disguise to get them for the tables of paradise.

Queijaria Vale da Estrela is located in Mangualde on Estrada Nacional 16, n.º 43 São Cosmado. Click here for the queijaria’s website. 

 

 

The best cheese in Azeitão

composit-queijo-azeitao

In the beginning of the 19th century, a farmer called Gaspar Henriques de Paiva moved from the Beira region to Azeitão, near Lisbon. He liked his new home, but craved the taste of the famous cheese made in Beira’s Estrela mountain. In 1830, Gaspar brought some “bordalesa” sheep from the Estrela mountain to Azeitão and arranged for a shepherd to come once a year to help him make cheese.

Gaspar owned only a few sheep, so his cheeses were small in size and his production low in volume. But the cheese was so great that it quickly gathered fame. Gaspar taught his neighbors how he made cheese with only three ingredients: sheep milk, cardoon and salt. Soon there were several cheese producers in Azeitão.

We traveled to Azeitão to try the cheeses made by the current generation of producers. When we asked the locals about their favorite cheese, they we unwilling to take sides. Finally, someone agreed to talk under condition of anonymity: “the best cheese in Azeitão is made in the village of Quinta do Anjo (Angel’s farm) and the best producer in Quinta do Anjo is Rui Simões,” he whispered, making sure he was not overheard.

We were lucky to get this tip because Rui Simões’ cheese is sold in only a few places, so we might have missed it.

We liked all the cheeses we tried in Azeitão, but there was indeed something special about the ones made by Rui Simões. They have an addictive creamy, salty, satisfying taste. Now that we are no longer near Azeitão, we crave them. Maybe we’ll buy some “bordalesa” sheep…

Click here for the web site of Queijaria Simões. 

A cheese revolution

Composit Queijaria 2016

Queijaria, our favorite cheese store in Lisbon, keeps getting better. It is a place where the ordinary is banned to make room for extraordinary artisanal cheeses made in small batches by traditional producers.

On our last visit Pedro Cardoso, one of the owners, invited us to taste two unique cheeses. The first was from São Jorge, an island in the Azores archipelago. It is made with the milk of happy cows that roam free on the island. São Jorge cheese is always delicious but this one was the best we ever had–sharp, peppery and full of flavor. “This cheese is aged for 30 months which makes all the difference. It is very hard to find because the production is tiny and almost all consumed locally,” said Pedro.

The second cheese was from Serra da Estrela. It melted in our mouths leaving an amazing buttery after taste. It is made with milk from “bordalesa” sheep. This breed is being replaced with sheep whose milk is less flavorful but more abundant. “Eating this cheese is an act of defiance. It is saying that we don’t want this wonderful taste to disappear; that quality trumps quantity.”

Pedro speaks with revolutionary zeal. He wants to preserve and enrich Portugal’s wonderful cheese heritage. Will you support his cause?

Queijaria is in the Principe Real neighborhood at Rua do Monte Olivete, 40, tel. 21 346 0474. Click here for their web site.

 

Tasting Portuguese cheese

Queijaria Composit- ©mariarebelophotography.comPresident Charles de Gaulle asked how could people expect him to run a country with 246 kinds of cheese. Judged by this metric, Portugal is easier to govern than France. We have fewer cheese varieties. But there are still many regions, types of milk, producers, and styles.

Many interesting Portuguese cheeses are hard to find. They are made in small quantities by artisanal producers and sold in local markets. Queijaria, a new store in Lisbon, makes it easy to sample these local specialties.

The store is run by people who are passionate about cheese and wine, so they are uniquely qualified to serve as your guide. They prepare a degustacion of different cheeses, perfectly sequenced and paired with great wines. In one sitting, your palate can travel from North to South, to the island of Azores and back to continental Portugal. It’s a gastronomical journey you will not forget!

Queijaria is in the Principe Real neighborhood at Rua do Monte Olivete, 40, tel. 21 346 0474. Click here for their web site.

Heavenly delights

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During the cold months of the year, banquets in heaven include slices of a white soft cheese served with pumpkin jam, toasted almonds, and a whiff of cinnamon. It has a silky texture and a smooth, milky taste, just what you’d  expect from heavenly food.

“What do you call this celestial cheese?,” newcomers ask the angels. “Requeijão” they answer. “It is made with sheep and goat milk by shepherds who live nearby, in Portugal’s Estrela mountain. Requeijão is great all year round. But it is exceptional in the Fall and Winter, when we always include it on our menus.”

One of the surprises of heaven is that some of its delights come from earth.

A Portuguese symposium

Queijo de AzeitãoSymposium is a Greek word that means drinking together. It refers to parties in which people sat around, drinking wine and talking about life. One of these parties, attended by Socrates, was immortalized by Plato in his writings.

You can easily recreate a symposium atmosphere in Portugal. First, invite some great friends. Second, procure three great ingredients: rustic bread, Azeitão cheese and Piriquita wine.

Azeitão is produced with sheep milk in small farms in the Arrábida mountain with the same techniques used to make Serra cheese in the Estrela mountain. But different pastures make different cheese, so Azeitão has a taste all of its own. Piriquita is a wine from the nearby Palmela region, produced with a grape varietal known as Castelão or Piriquita.

This wine and cheese are a heavenly pairing. So, you’ll have a good time, even if no philosophers show up. But, if you’re lucky, the conversation will be so brilliant that people will still talk about your party in 2500 years.

The Azeitão cheese produced by Fernando & Simões in Quinta do Anjo is one of our favorites. 

Memories of a lost cheese

Marcel Proust could vividly recall the taste and smell of his aunt’s madeleines. Those memories inspired his masterpiece, Remembrance of Things Past.

Joana Garcia remembered the taste and smell of the cheese she ate as a child with her grandmother in Alentejo. Those memories inspired her to recreate that long-lost flavor. She quit her job as a lawyer, moved to Alentejo and bought 500 sheep. After trying endless combinations of milk, salt and cardoon, she found the taste of her youth. Garcia’s masterpiece is called Queijo Monte da Vinha. It is a delicious, soft, buttery cheese with the precious taste of a distant past.

You can try Queijo Monte da Vinha at the wonderful Tasca da Esquina restaurant in Lisbon. You can buy it at Mercearia Creativa, a gourmet grocery store where you’ll find many other great Portuguese products (Av. Guerra Junqueiro, 4A, Lisbon, tel. 218-485-198). Click here for the Monte da Vinha website.