When you’re eating Manchego cheese you can almost taste the dry, rolling plains of La Mancha…
La Mancha is, of course, in Spain. You probably recognize it from Miguel de Cervantes’ classic novel Don Quixote, whose eccentric title character lives in the region and tilts at its characteristic windmills. In fact, given the long history of Manchego cheese, and the fact that it pops up in the book, it’s likely that Cervantes ate it just as you do today!
La Mancha is a geographical rather than political area; a high plateau that stretches south of the capital, Madrid, encompassing the ancient, walled city of Toledo before reaching the beautiful Sierra Morena. To the east, it encompasses the less noteworthy city of Albacete. It’s more than 34,000 km2 and covers 398 municipalities, mostly in the Cuenca and Toledo provinces.
La Mancha is an agricultural area with some fertile land, but this is mixed with rocky outcrops, and it has an extreme climate due to the height of the plateau. The variable rainfall, summer heat and winter frosts mean that the plant life throughout the region is naturally restricted to hardy plants with a tough constitution. This was recognised thousands of years ago by the Arabs who first lived in the area, naming it Al Mansha, meaning “waterless land”.
Despite this, wine is grown here, as in all of Spain – La Mancha has been certified as a Denominación de Origen for varieties of both red and white wine. It’s a big region for saffron, and the famous windmills are generally milling cereals. But, for our purposes, it’s the flocks of Manchega which are important, as they produce the sheep’s milk that Manchego cheese is made of.