Excerpt from Ari’s Top 5 enews
Marvelous traditional cheese from the Spanish island of Menorca
One of the tastiest, if least known, cheeses on the Deli’s counter right now! If you’re already a fan of Mahon cheese, make a point of getting in to taste it this week—the current batch is particularly excellent. If you don’t know Mahon, this one will be a great time to give it a try. It’s a memorable way to make the acquaintance of this ancient cheese from the Mediterranean island of Menorca. The island has a long history that’s seen any number of conquerors come through over the years. Most residents speak both Catalan and Castilian, and many long-time locals still learn and use the old island language of Menorquí, in which the name of the town of Mahon—from whence the cheese originates—would be Mao.
Mahon, the cheese, is a PDO (Protected Denomination of Origin) that’s been made on the island of Menorca for something like four or five thousand years! If you don’t know it, Menorca is the smaller of the two main Balearic Islands (Majorca, of course, is bigger). The island has a fascinating history: occupied by Greeks and then Romans; Vandals, Moors, British, and French followed. It has an old Jewish community that was forced to convert in the 5th century, though some Jews stayed on as secret Conversos. The whole island today has a population slightly smaller than that of Ann Arbor. Menorca was declared a Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO—the island has over 900 varieties of flowers growing, which of course, add to the diversity of the cows’ diet and hence the complexity of the milk. While the cows don’t eat them, there are also over 30 varieties of butterflies on the island!
These particular cheeses come from the long-standing, highly regarded Quintana family, who has been selecting and maturing the best Mahons for eight generations and over a century. Master in Cheese Ripening, Bosco Triay Barber, has been around the cheeses since he was a small child! Our importer, Carrie Blakeman of Rogers Collection, reports that “this humble company is very respected locally—quietly—and mostly on the farm.” All of their cheeses are made using methods that are as true to ancient techniques as possible while still respecting modern health codes. The milk for these cheeses comes from a single-family farm (known in Menorqui as a lloc) with just 40 cows. The land is divided into plots by multiple dry-stone walls for the cattle to graze freely in the rich grass bathed by the sun and irrigated by the unique maritime environment. The cheese is made from the milk of the old local breed, the Mahonese cow. Milk is always unpasteurized, and the curd is never cooled until after the cheese has been set, protecting the milk’s delicate flavors in the process.
The folks at Quintana clearly have great passion for, and pride in, the quality of the cheese. It is, by far, Menorca’s most significant culinary claim to fame. Factory versions of Mahon have a bright, orange, waxy-looking rind and rather uninteresting flavor. I far prefer what we have in-house right now—artisan offerings, made by hand, from raw milk that are some of the tastiest cheeses around. Rarely seen off the islands, you can spot them from their darker, dusty-looking burnt orange-brownish rinds. The interior of the cheese is the color of well-worn ivory. I enjoy it most at about nine or ten months—like what we have now—when they’ve developed the texture of an aged Gouda and an almost smoky flavor. Nattily nutty, significant, striking, it stands up for itself without being standoffish. Great with almonds or dried fruit. Pair with almost any of the breads from the Bakehouse. A few years ago, New York Times food writer Florence Fabricant recommended melting Mahon atop casseroles, potatoes, or pasta. Locals like it sprinkled with black pepper, extra virgin olive oil, and tarragon—as someone who loves all three of those, I think it’s a pretty amazing flavor combination! At its simplest, just bring home a nice-sized chunk, let it come to room temperature to access its full flavor, and then nibble away while you study or set the table for dinner!