One of Portugal’s gastronomic highlights is Serra da Estrela cheese. Its by-product, requeijão (like ricotta) is rather yummy, too. Thanks to a cheese-making workshop, I now know how they’re made, although I won’t be trying this at home.
According to Maria do Céu, who has been making Serra da Estrela cheese since she was twelve and knows a thing or two about it, my hands are too hot! And unlike the cheese factory at Casa da Insua near Viseu, I haven’t got the equipment. Or the sheep. Or the patience. The workshop, however, was interesting and fun.
If you’re only interested in the finished product, scroll down to the end of the post for tips on eating Serra da Estrela cheese. Otherwise, here’s the 10-step process:
Step 1. Milk the sheep
We missed this stage, which happens very early in the morning. If you are prepared to get up at dawn, you can have a go at milking a sheep.
Step 2. Curdle the milk
Add ground thistle petals and salt to the sheep’s milk using a cotton sheet to strain the mixture. Leave to curdle for 30 minutes.
Step 3. Separate the curds and whey
Scoop the curdled milk into a clean cotton cloth, gather the ends and start gently squeezing the liquid from it. The liquid (whey) runs out of a spout at the end of the table into a bucket. Then it gets boiled to make requeijão (soft, fresh cheese).
Step 4. Mash the curds
This is my favourite part. Once you’ve squashed most of the liquid from your bundle, you empty the contents onto the metal table and massage it with your hands to remove any big lumps. The texture is wonderfully soft without being slimy.
Step 5. Remove air pockets
Place a cloth over a cylindrical tub then scoop up handfuls of curds until the tub is piled high. Then gather the ends of the cloth and gently squash the excess liquid out. Once that’s done, spread the cloth smoothly over the top of the cheese and press down gently with the flat of your hands, pushing down at the edges with your fingertips.
This is the part where Maria declares my hands to be too hot for this kind of work. Oh, well. I’ve resigned myself to never being a master cheese maker. I’m very good at eating it though.
Step 6. Turn it over
At this point, you get to see what you’ve made by flipping the tub over and revealing the solid lump of cheese. Admire it, then turn it upside down and put it back in the tub, not forgetting to spread the cloth over the top of the tub first.
Step 7. Label it
Each cheese gets a production sticker which disintegrates over time, leaving a number impregnated in the rind so that any problems can be traced back.
Step 8. Wrap it and wait
To help the cheese retain its form during the maturing process, it needs to be wrapped around the sides with muslin bandages. Once wrapped, it gets placed on wooden shelves and left to settle. Any remaining liquid seeps out over time and after 30 days, it’s ready to eat.
Step 9. Wash it
During the curing process, it’s normal for a little mould to form on the rind. This gets carefully washed off and the cheese is re-bandaged and then either gets sold or goes back to the curing cupboard for further maturing.
Step 10. Eat it
Obviously, this is the best bit, especially as we didn’t have to wait 30 days to taste the cheese we made. In true Blue Peter style, there was one they’d made earlier waiting for us to tuck into after our hard work.
How to eat runny cheese
I prefer Serra da Estrela cheese when it’s still young and gooey. You can slice it and eat it, rind and all, alone or with bread and possibly some home made jam.
Another popular way of tackling a whole cheese is to carve a circle out of the top to make a lid. You then have a pot of gooey goodness to take spoonfuls from. If you manage not to eat it all in one go, put the lid back on until next time.
If you like your cheese runny, look out for the word amanteigada on labels and give the cheese a gentle squeeze to assess its softness before buying.
How to eat the hard stuff
Some people prefer their cheese a bit harder and stronger in flavour so you can buy it at various stages of maturity, up to the rock hard lumps that have been sitting there for a year. At this point, the cheese is very dry and is best enjoyed with olive oil and a glass of red wine
How to eat the soft, fresh cheese
Requijão on the other hand only lasts for about a week before turning sour. It’s a popular starter, breakfast or dessert in Portugal and is often served with honey, marmelada (solid quince jam) or home made pumpkin jam. It’s delicious on fresh crusty bread, too.
I’d like to thank Visit Centro for inviting me on this cheese-tastic workshop, and the staff at Casa da Insua for showing me how to make my favourite cheese.
If you’d like to have a go at making Serra da Estrela cheese, or just watch the experts in action, you can arrange it through Casa da Insua.
For more about the beautiful area this cheese originates from, read Why the Serra da Estrela is the Star of Central Portugal.