Dom Pedro and his uncle, the refined Duke of Palmelo, greet me in the Portuguese countryside to view their state-of the-art artisanal cheese-making facility, Casa de Calhariz. While the charismatic Pedro seems more interested in talking about scuba diving off the pristine Portuguese islands in the Azores, he does show me around the cheese operation after I cover my shoes with baby blue paper booties.
I’m visiting the Azeitao region, an area of Portugal known for its flavorful cheeses, made from raw sheep milk, salt, and a thistle to separate the curd from the whey. Cheese-making season in the Azeitao is September through June, but the thistle heads are cut off in June and July and left to dry (until their purple color disappears).The micro-climate from the Arrabida Mountains and the grass that grows in this region—the Costa Azul, where shades of blues and greens dominate the landscape—contribute to the distinctive Azeitao sheep cheese. It’s a creamy, semi-soft cheese with a pale yellow rind.
Quality cheese-making requires a good food source, good thistle, and sheep which don’t produce too much milk. Dom Pedro, an unlikely gentleman farmer following a 60-year-old family tradition, tells me “good milk is a complicated thing, and 70% of the cheese is dependent on the milk.” Then with a twinkle in his eye, he adds: ”We have much love with the cheese.”
At another nearby farm, cheese has been made for 100 years. But with the implementation of new EEC (European Economic Community) regulations seven years ago, they stopped marketing it due to the strict environmental requirements and stringent hygiene laws. Today they operate as a cheese museum where you can see the process of traditional Portuguese sheep cheese-making with the flower of the local cardoon thistle acting as a coagulant, rather than animal rennet.
In this lush area in the foothills of the Arrabida mountain range, the sheep eat the fruit of cork trees, making their milk more fatty, which means producing more cheese. There are 230 sheep and two shepherds here, where the arduous process of milking the sheep by hand takes place in the morning. Sheep can produce milk for cheese when they are one year old, but it is preferable to wait until they are two. Farmer Ricardo Couto explains, “Rather than giving an injection to milk the sheep, I prefer to play classical music to relax them before hand-milking.”
At the Cheese Museum, which is a former horse stable dating back to 1643, you can watch the traditional process of cheese-making with the aid of a large pottery urn, a long wooden spoon, and a roaring fireplace. You may view a demonstration or participate in the making of the cheese. At this point though, I’m more interested in the tasting process.
After enjoying several fado performances in Lisbon, as well as the Fado Museum, I’m off to a cheese tasting at the posh Corinthia Hotel, also in Lisbon, as a way to get my bearings on the array of exotic cheeses. Many of the cheeses in Portugal are named after their home region. The Azeitao, Evora and Serra (Serra da Estrela is a rich buttery-tasting, intense cheese from north of Lisbon, produced since the 12th century) are good examples. These areas, known for their sheep’s cheese, are designated DOP (Denominação de Origem or Protected Designation of Origin), protecting the region, its producers, and the flavor of the earth with a special gastronomic title preserving authenticity—the principle is also applicable to wine, olive oil, vinegar, et cetera.
Azeitao cheese is eaten by cutting off the top of the wheel and then scooping out the in side with a spoon. Most of the others are cut more conventionally, and the light rind is often consumed as well. There are ultra