Manchego is a sheep’s milk cheese.
Sheep’s milk is much less common than cow’s milk, probably because sheep are much smaller than cows and so naturally produce a much smaller volume of milk. A sheep might produce about a hundred kilos a year, while cows can produce up to ten thousand kilos. Not much of a contest there!
Manchego cheese specifically is produced by the smart, funny Manchega sheep which have roamed the plains of La Mancha for thousands of years. Originally, the species pushed down from Central Europe through the Pyrenees and was an ovis aries ligeriensis, before being bred and improved by the early inhabitants of the region.
The Manchega’s grazing on the idiosyncratic native wildlife and herbs are what gives Manchego its classic flavour, and means that it’s impossible to make it properly away from that area. To perpetuate this special cheese, the D.O. board strictly controls the breeding of the Manchega.
There’s not a lot of sheep’s milk drinking these days, but it is used in making some other great cheeses:
- Feta cheese from Greece
- Roquefort cheese from France
- Pecorino Romano and Ricotta cheeses from Italy
It works well for cheese because sheep’s milk has more fat, more protein and generally more solids and less water than cow’s or goat’s milk. But beware – it also contains more lactose, so unfortunately it’s not an option for the lactose intolerant!
There’s a Great Debate out there about raw vs pasteurised milk. In many countries raw milk or cheese made from raw milk is illegal, and instead the heating pasteurisation process has to take place first, which kills some bacteria but also hurts the flavour of the final product. Any industrial Manchego imported into your country is likely to be pasteurised, but if you’re in Spain you might be able to get a hand-made raw milk Manchego – it’s a whole different experience!