Cheese lovers in Mallorca have a good selection of some of the top names to choose from— as well as some they have never heard of and are worth trying.
The choice in Spanish hard cheeses is huge but you won’t find them at the supermarket round the corner where you live — you’ll have to go to the several specialist outlets in the centre of Palma.
These include La Crème in Calle Tous Ferrer (next to the Mercat d’Olivar), Manjares in Calle Blanquerna (on the corner with Calle Antonio Marqués Marqués), a couple of stalls in the Mercat d’Olivar, at least three charcuterie stalls in the Santa Catalina market, and also the charcuterie counters at El Corte Inglés in Jaime III and the Avenidas.
These outlets also stock some of the more famous French cheeses (and a few you won’t have tried before) as well as half a dozen of the more popular Italian cheeses.
You won’t find many British cheeses, although I’ve seen four or five at El Corte Inglés in Jaime III and the Avenidas. I never get to Lidl or Carrefour but I would expect them to have a good stock of Spanish and foreign cheeses.
There’s a cheese that’s popular in Italy but I’ve seldom seen it here. It’s called scamorza and I first came across it in a pizzeria in Valldemosa about 20 years ago.
I didn’t see it again until a couple of weeks ago when a smoked scamorza was part of the topping on a scrummy pizzeta at the Bistró, the fifth floor restaurant of El Corte Inglés in Jaime III. That sounds as if scamorza is a pizza cheese, but there’s much more to it than that.
Scamorza is what the Italians call a ‘pasta filata’, meaning a cheese made with a ‘plastic curd’. These cheeses are done in a special way that leads to the ‘pasta filata’ name.
When the whey has been squeezed out, the curd is submerged in hot water or whey and kneaded, stretched and moulded until the texture is like soft plastic. Other ‘pasta filata’ cheeses include provolone and mozzarella.
Scamorza, which is from Abruzzo in central Italy, is made from cow’s milk and is finished off in the shape of a pear weighing around 300 grs, although some can be more than double that in weight.
It has an off-white colour and a slightly sweet-sour taste. In Italy it is sold fresh and has a shelf life of only one week. It’s the smoked version you’ll find here and in other places outside of Italy.
Michele Caporale of La Bottega in Calle Fábrica (Tel:971-454892) is from Abruzzo, so I went to see him and asked if he could do a typical scamorza dish from his part of Italy. He asked if I wanted it with or without pasta. As I’ve been a pasta freak since about the age of five, I said I’d prefer scamorza with spaghetti or tagliatelle.
He did a small scamorza roasted in the oven and served it with tagliatelle in a plain tomato sauce with cherry tomatoes roasted at the same time as the cheese (€16).
The scamorza was roasted unpeeled because the smoked flavour is concentrated on the thin skin. That added a subtle and memorable flavour and the skin was crisp in places, giving contrasts of texture. It was a most successful dish.
Michele also did a starter with another ‘pasta filata’ cheese: the best burrata I have ever tasted. It has the most elegant and refined filling imaginable and when served at the right cold temperature it is an ideal dish for hot weather days.
The burrata came with a tomato salad that was also a highlight of this meal because it was made with the raf, an especially juicy, meaty and tasty Spanish tomato.
But there was something extra special about this raf tomato. It was grown by a friend of Michele’s who has horses…and he uses their dung as a fertiliser.
The raf is already one of Spain’s best and dearest tomatoes (authentic ones cost €7-€9 a kilo) but this version cultivated with horse dung fertiliser made it the finest tomato I have ever tasted — and that includes the incredible San Marzano tomatoes from the Naples region.
The raf tomates and the burrata, which was sitting on a bed of rocket and topped with a sprig of large leaf basil, also came with black and green olives, as well as shavings of a summer black truffle Michele uses in some of his salads and pastas. This dish, with a good Mallorcan tomato instead of the special rafs, is on the menu at €15.
The pizzeta at the Bistró in El Corte Inglés with scamorza in the multi-flavoured topping (€12.45) was a surprise in more ways than one. First of all, as the name pizzeta suggests, this savoury pastry is not as large as a pizza.
This is a small point but it makes a big difference for me: a pizzeta is less filling so I can then try another dish (or two) as well as share a dessert, which gives me the five pictures I need for the double-page review.
Another surprise was that, having first eaten scamorza some 20 years ago on the topping of a pizza, I had completely forgotten that this cheese melts beautifully.
This is also an important point because the cheeses we use in cooking, especially on toppings and in stuffings, must melt well. Some don’t, and go all stringy when cooked…and overcooked.
That is a big turn-off and good cooks avoid cheeses that form strings.
As I’ve already mentioned, other pasta filata cheeses that are good melters are mozzarella and provolone and they are ideal for those moments when you want a piece of toast with melted cheese on it.
Another cheese that melts beautifully is bel paese, one of the most popular table cheeses in Italy. Bel paese means ‘beautiful country’ and Dante used these words to refer to Italy in his Divine Comedy, and it also appeared in a sonnet by Petrarch.
Bel paese is a good melter because it has a high fat content. Some Italian cooks use it instead of mozzarella, especially when doing bruschetta for a special family occasion or for meals during the 12 days of Christmas.
The owner of the Parisian restaurant Androuet that specialised in cheeses, did a version of the croque monsieur which was called Croque Madame Bel Paese.
It consisted of a slice of toast with a layer of bechamel sauce topped with grated parmesan, slices of very thin prosciutto, with a final layer of melted bel paese. The dish was presented by Androuet at the 1932 World’s Fair Exposition in Paris.
The Androuet restaurant was on the first floor at Rue de Amsterdam 41 and there was a cheese shop on the ground floor. Before the Second World War restaurant diners who asked for a cheese board had 70 cheeses to choose from.
Even in the early 1960s the choice was from a list of 50. Cheese on toast is most popular in Britain because some of the country’s hard cheeses melt so well. Lancashire and Cheshire cheeses are splendid melters and so are the Cheddar types.
The Greeks use their feta cheese as a fillers for little phyllo pastry pies along with spinach and other greens. French cooks favour gruyère and emmental in savoury pastries, although neither is among my favourites for dishes that call for melted cheese.
Visitors to the island, and even long-time residents, often miss out on one of Spain’s great gastronomic treats: a wide range of superb cheeses, some of which are as good as you’ll find anywhere—and that includes France.
France specialises in soft cheeses but Spanish cheesemakers concentrate on the other end of the scale: Spanish hard cheeses are among the best in the world.
Visitors to the island get very little chance to taste the magnificent cheeses Spain has to offer because hotel menus provide only a tiny selection of cheese at the lower end of the market. I don’t know of a single restaurant that has a passable cheese board.
There’s a good reason for this unfortunate state of affairs: cheese does not have an important role in Spanish meals, either at home or in restaurants. A Spaniard is more likely to nibble on a little cheese while having a preprandial drink than to have it as a separate course at the end of a meal.
If you want to taste good Spanish cheeses and make the most of what’s available, it pays to know what to go for. There are two basic ways to start: buy those cheeses you like the look of and whose prices are right — or slowly work your way through those cheeses with Denominación de Origen (DO) status.
The beauty of DO cheeses (as with DO wines) is that they are guarantee of quality. Only the best cheeses are awarded the DO label, so they are always worth trying. Here are some of the better-known DO cheeses.
This cheese from Navarra was the first to achieve DO status. It is made with ewe’s milk and is always available at the supermarkets of El Corte Inglés.
This is the cheese most visitors and residents get to taste because it is made on the neighbouring island of Minorca and has always been widely available here. There are mild, medium and well-cured versions — try them all and see which your prefer.
Many connoisseurs consider this to be Spain’s best cheese. It is certainly in the same league as other blue cheeses such as stilton, roquefort and gorgonzola. It has a strong aromatic taste with a creamy texture and it is available throughout the year.
Made in the País Vasco, it has a high fat content (55 per cent) and it is sometimes lightly smoked. It grates beautifully and gives a subtle smoky flavour to risottos and pasta dishes.
A smooth buttery cheese that is sold all over the country. It has a firm compact texture with small holes in the interior. It melts well and is used a great deal in cooking.
This is Spain’s best known cheese and also the second largest best-seller. It is also the most imitated of Spain’s cheeses. It is made from ewe’s milk and is a strong cheese with plenty of taste.
From Galicia, it is made with cow’s milk and gets the name tetilla because it is in the shape of a woman’s small breast. Unlike other DO cheeses, this one is made on an industrial scale with tens of millions of kilos being produced and sold each year. You’ll find it in every supermarket.
Made from the churra ewe’s milk, it is somewhat similar to manchego. It is oily on the palate and has an intense taste that is slightly piquant. A cheese with character that you should look out for.
Made only from the milk of the merino ewe, it comes from Extremadura and is one of Spain’s finest cheeses. It is extremely soft and is one of the cheeses that get the name ‘torta’, a word meaning pie, flan or tart. The cheese looks like a thick round pie. Its interior is so soft the top has to be cut off in a thin slice so the cheese can be scooped out with a small spoon. If it were cut into wedges, the cheese would seep out on to the plate or board.
Torta del casar
Another ‘torta’ cheese and also from Extremadura. As you cannot buy a chunk of these two ‘tortas’, you must take a whole one. But this cheese, which costs around €30, will bring a meal of up to eight people to spectacular end. It is a superb buy for true cheese lovers.
There are a few other DO cheeses, although I’ve never seen them in Palma. But if you make an effort to try the 10 on this list you will discover some of Spain’s rich heritage in dairy products.
But DO cheeses are not the full story. You will also see many fine non-DO cheeses at specialist outlets such as the cheese counters of El Corte Inglés in Jaime III and the Avenidas.