At first glance I thought this cheese of the Extremadura region of Spain was the cheese of Caesar. With its creamy dippable interior barely contained in the bulging low walls, the rich flavor seemed clearly meant for the most exalted leader. That’s what happens when I let my eyes and my mouth translate. It is, in fact, the cake or loaf (of cheese) from the Caceres area, along Spain’s border with Portugal; a sheep’s milk cheese from the shepherds, using vegetable (thistle) rennet and traditional cheese-making processes to create a most flavorful ivory-colored runny cheese.
I first encountered this at the international food show Salon del Gourmet in Madrid in 2005, with the top removed from a low, round wheel of cheese inviting bread to be dipped in for tasting. Delicious! And so unusual! Instead of the usual hunks of cheese I was served a smear resembling melted cheese in consistency, but not heated at all, merely kept at room temperature. It was like having a Swiss raclette or a fondue without the need for a heat source to melt the cheese. It was heavenly!
At the Eat Spain Up! event in October in New York I had another encounter with Torta del Casar, unfortunately not an edible one. I was flipping through a copy of the cookbook Extremadura – Cuatro Estaciones, and landed on a page dedicated to the region’s best cheese. Now, at least, I know where it comes from. But finding the cheese in local cheese shops, even good ones, is unlikely. La Tienda, here I come!
In Spain, a PDO is a Protected Designation of Origin, meaning specific criteria must be met to use that designation – sources, aging, processing and appearance are all controlled. This is true for cheeses, hams, olive oil, breeds of animals and agricultural products. Torta del Casar is one of many products so protected in Extremadura and throughout Spain. When traveling in Spain, seek out these local foods, the unique PDO flavors that brand the culinary heart of the place, and you’ll taste the terroir along with the flavors of centuries of tradition.