The best cheese in Azeitão

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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 at Rua das Flores, 64, Lisbon. 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 at Rua das Flores, 64, Lisbon. 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.

Sweet Romeo and Juliet

Quince jam (marmelada) is very popular in Portugal. Some people like it freshly made, when it is soft and yellow, while others prefer it aged, when it is hard and dark red. But both factions agree that a slice of buttered bread with marmelada is one of the world’s most simple and satisfying pleasures.

Marmelada is often paired with a slice of queijo da ilha, a cheese from the Azores islands. This combination is so perfect that it is known as “Romeo and Juliet.” Be sure to try it when you visit Portugal!

Below you’ll find a marmelada recipe from a 16th century Portuguese cookbook attributed to Infanta D. Maria. If you find quinces in your local market, bring them home and make some marmelada. There is something very special about cooking from a recipe that is four centuries old.

MARMELADA D. JOANA

Use two kilograms of quince and 1.5 kilograms of sugar. Cook the quince in a covered pot of water. Peel the quince, cut it in pieces and strain the pulp through a fine sieve. Combine sugar and water in a pot and make a syrup. Add a little orange-flower water to the syrup. Remove the pot from the heat and combine the strained quince pulp with the syrup. Heat this mixture and stir the marmalade until it no longer sticks to the bottom.