Cheese is thought to have been introduced to Europe by travelers from Central Asia or the Middle East. Ancient Greek mythology makes mention of cheese; and by the height of the Roman Empire, during the time of Julius Caesar, cheese-making was widespread throughout Europe and the Middle East, in fact, hundreds of varieties of cheese were produced and traded.
Archaeologists have discovered that a cheese similar to Manchego was being produced in Spain before the Romans colonized and introduced their sophisticated cheese- making techniques around 200 BC. The first tangible evidence of cheese-making in the Iberian Peninsula comes in the form of cheese vessels and colanders dating from the 4th millennium BC.
In the Middle Ages, between the decline of the Roman Empire and the discovery of the New World, cheese-making was improved by monks in the monasteries. Some Christian monasteries emerged as veritable centers of experimental cuisine and these, along with the culinary culture of royalty and the aristocracy, can be credited with having created some of the cheeses known and loved in Europe today. Seasonal pilgrimages by shepherds helped to spread cheese-making lore throughout the Iberian Peninsula and during the Medieval Pilgrim’s Road to Santiago, cheese from Aragon, Navarre, Castile, Cantabria, Asturias and Galicia was a great source of energy for the devotees on their journey.
There is documented evidence that cheese was being produced as early as the 10th century in the Picos de Europa, the mountainous mass in northern Spain that extends through the present-day regions of Asturias, Cantabria and Castile-Leon. The Picos region is still famous for its excellent cheeses, particularly blue cheeses, which are made by leaving them in damp mountain caves where they acquire natural Penicillium mold. Also in the Middle Ages, we find the first written references to making sheep’s milk cheeses.
The land, climate and type of animal’s milk used influenced how each region in Spain developed its own style of cheese: the dry interior areas produced sheep’s milk cheese, while in the pastures and verdant mountains of the north, and in more recent history some of the islands, made rich cheese using cow’s milk. Goat’s milk cheese was produced throughout Spain.
Artisan cheeses have always been a part of Spain’s cheese-making history with small producers in rural regions keeping up the tradition even when the country was going through a period of modernization and industrialization. Throughout the 20th century, the many advances and discoveries achieved in the fields of bacteriology, chemistry and technology had the effect of modernizing the cheese producing sector to a certain degree. However, because of their very nature, the most traditional cheeses are still made in a highly artisan way to this day.
When Spain joined the EU in the mid 1980’s, it had already started introducing the designation of origin classification to premium foods, which controls the quality and traditional characteristics of those products. In 1990, when Spain’s National Designations of Origin Institute (INDO) updated the original catalogue of cheeses, it recorded 81 different types according to provenance and production method, with a view to preserving the particular characteristics and quality of Spanish cheeses. Six years later, the inventory of traditional Spanish products included more than 90 types of cheese, and today there are over 100. Currently 27 cheeses have Denominación de Origen (DO) or Denominación de Origen Protegida (PDO) status.
Cow’s milk cheese is generally found in the north, along the Cantabrian coast, from Galicia to the Basque Country, and the Cantabrian Range and the Aragon and Catalan Pyrenees mountains.
Sheep’s milk cheese is found in the interior, from Cantabria and the Basque Country in the north, to the flat lands of Castile — Leon, Castile — La Mancha, Aragon and Extremadura. And finally goat’s milk cheeses are found mostly along the Mediterranean coast, from Catalonia to Andalusia, as well as in Extremadura.
The Canary and Balearic Islands mainly produce goat’s milk cheese, although cow’s milk and mixed milk cheeses are also made there. Mixed milk cheeses are found throughout Spain with the local milk predominating.