March 20 2011
I discovered Queijo da Serra some years ago on a trip to central Portugal from my base in western Spain. When I first tried it, in a market in the town of Fundao, I had no idea that the Portuguese even made cheeses, let alone one as magnificent as this. It turns out that in Portugal this cheese has something of the prestige enjoyed by Stilton in England – though the two could hardly be more different. For lovers of headily ripe and rich cheeses with a runny texture (think raw-milk Camembert or Vacherin, perhaps its closest relative), the Queijo da Serra is simply heaven in dairy form.
The heartland of the Queijo da Serra (the name simply means “mountain cheese”) is the Estrela mountain range, hard by the Spanish border in the little-visited region of Beira Interior. For centuries the high peaks of the Serra da Estrela, including Portugal’s highest at almost 2,000m, have been famous for their flocks of Bordaleira sheep, which are taken up to graze on the pastures of the high Serra.
In an age of mass availability, this isn’t a product you can lay your hands on easily. You will certainly see it in some of the better delicatessens in Lisbon or Porto. The fine cheese shops of the United Kingdom stock it from time to time, and it’s also sold at a Portuguese delicatessen in London, Delicias de Portugal. Where you are most likely to find it, however, is in the small country towns of Seia, Gouveia, Fundão and Covilhã, in the foothills of the Serra da Estrela.
The cheese is made with raw sheep’s milk using a vegetable rennet derived from the thistle flower Cynara cardunculus. Round and flattish in shape, it is presented with a strip of rough cotton fabric in the manner of a belt. The glory of the Queijo da Serra, apart from its deep, faintly piquant flavour, is its extraordinary texture when ripe. The procedure is as follows: cut around the top of the cheese with a sharp knife, removing the disc to reveal the luscious cream beneath. Thin toast, crispbread, cheese biscuits, vegetable crudités (or, at a pinch, a finger) can then be used as vehicles, in the manner of a fondue. When nothing is left but the empty rind, I have a trick up my sleeve – I stuff the shell with well-seasoned mashed potato and bake it in the oven.