Right around the time I start digging out my sweaters, I begin to crave Spanish cheese. That’s because I associate Spain’s notoriously dense wheels with autumn smells – dry leaves, cool earth, a hint of wood smoke – and, especially, fall colors. A golden wheel of aged Mahon can be brighter than any maple, and a russet wheel of Ibores (rhymes with Delores) pops like neon pollen on new sidewalk.
Spanish cheeses take their color from spices like paprika, the source of Ibores’ rouge coat, and sometimes olive oil, which lends the surface of Mahon its characteristic dark gloss. Cheesemakers rub these ingredients into the rinds as the wheels age, a process that adds flavor – not just to the surface, but also to the paste as the spices slowly penetrate to the core.
For all their deep color, Spanish cheeses are surprisingly tame. They’re the “A students” of the cheese world: bright and quietly thoughtful without any back talk. As a cheesemonger recently explained to me, the mellow natures of these cheeses are designed to round out the country’s hot-tempered cuisine. Their subdued flavors underscore briny olives, fiery cured meats, and even zingy Basque honey spiked with Espelette peppers – now a trendy ingredient in gourmet shops.
Espelette peppers, or Piment d’Espelette, as they’re called in the Basque region, are all about sweet fire; they’re often used in place of black pepper in the local cuisine. Dried and ground, they can be stirred into amber honey to create a bright-hot condiment for cheese. I like the “California Honey with Basque Pepper” from K.L. Imports in Oakland, but you can also just buy a shaker of ground Espelette from a spice store and mix it into some local honey, especially if you want to control the heat. Note: it’s sparky but not lingering.
If you’re new to Spanish cheese, start with three or four, and build a meal around them, or set out a bottle of Rioja and a cheese plate in the afternoon for some pre-dinner tapas. Because these cheeses are striking but mild, they’re good choices for entertaining both the die-hard cheese lover and less adventurous eater. Alongside a meal, Spanish cheeses pair well with wintery soups, especially pumpkin bisque or root vegetable stew.
Here are three cheeses from Spain that pair well together, along with a leaf-wrapped blue that is so pretty and so autumnal I can’t bear not to share it with you. It’s exactly the right cheese to eat after raking leaves. Add a glass of sherry, light a fire, and stay in.
An Artisan Spanish Cheese Plate
Serve these cheeses at room temperature alongside traditional pairings of plump green olives, Basque pepper honey, Marcona almonds, and cured Spanish meats. Fresh melon or fruit paste, like Spanish membrillo (made from apples or quinces) are lovely bedfellows, too.
This snowy goat cheese made by a father-daughter team in Castilla y León is enrobed in ash and penicillium roqueforti (the same mold used in blue cheese), which lends this loaf a bluesy kick. Because Montenebro has a peppery hook on the finish, it can dance with a bold partner — like orange flower honey spiked with Espelette peppers. The combination of cool, ice-white cheese and warm, maroon-dark honey is arresting.
Raw goat’s milk is rubbed down with paprika and olive oil to make this unique wheel from the Extremadura region of western Spain. The flavor is mellow, like sour cream with a dash of gentle spice, and the texture is firm but spreadable. Try serving Ibores with toasted baguette rounds and meaty Catalan olives.
Most people are familiar with young Mahón, which is sold in pudgy slabs at deli counters. Aged Mahon, known as Mahón Curado, is a different beast. This raw cow’s milk cheese from the island of Menorca turns sweetly nutty as it ripens, bringing it more closely in line with the flavor profile of aged Gouda. Think: salty toffee, browned butter. The ochre rind comes from rubbing paprika into the cheese as it ages. All pork loves Mahón, especially cured chorizo. Save any leftover Mahon for a Cubano sandwich.
The supple texture and mellow allure of Valdéon has been known to win over even the most blue cheese averse. Wrapped in Sycamore leaves, this mixed milk cheese (usually cow and goat) ages in caves, where it turns moist and sultry. Expect flavors of sweet earth and flint. Add a drizzle of honey, or for a mind-blowing combination: dark chocolate. One cheesemonger I know stirs crumbled Valdéon into cookie dough to make chocolatey Valdéon Chip cookies.