Last month, Condé Nast Traveler published an article about the best cheese in the world. Having travelled the globe, their search identified 9 different varieties, one of which is Portugal’s Queijo de Azeitão.
This is great news. Not only because it gives me extra confidence in mine and my customers’ palettes – it’s one of my favourite cheeses and has been the best selling product at de SILVA’S by far. But it also gave me a brilliant excuse for a quick trip to Portugal. After such an accolade I thought it only appropriate that I go and meet the man responsible for making this world class cheese…
Drive an hour or so south of Lisbon, over the Tagus river, and you will come to the region of Setúbal, famous for producing amazing fortified Moscatel wines. The relatively undiscovered jewel in Setúbal’s crown however, is this incredible creamy sheep’s cheese that takes its name from the small town of Azeitão, located at the foothills of the Arrábida mountains.
I went to visit the Fernando e Simoēs queijaria (cheese factory) and managed to get some time with the master himself, Mestre Rui Simoēs. Here he is!
This is a family business, one that was set up 30 years ago when Rui started making cheese the old fashioned way. The coagulation was done by hand in a small wooden tray and the cheeses were carried to clients in bespoke wooden boxes with individual shelves just big enough to hold the 240g rounds of soft, delicate cheese. Things have come a long way since then and he took me through the process of modern-day artisanal cheese making.
Each morning, the ewe's milk is collected from local sheep farmers.
The raw milk is mixed with salt and a rennet made from local cardoon thistle and left for about one hour. This plant rennet makes it one of a rare number of truly vegetarian cheeses.
The coagulation then takes places before the cheese is put into moulds and pressed into shape.
The rounds then have three cooling chambers to go into, all varying in temperature and humidity. After coming out of the first and the second chambers they are carefully washed by hand. Here are the lovely ladies that are responsible for the washing...!
Before going into the final chamber they are wrapped in a paper that holds the cheese together - it is so soft that it would otherwise collapse. This chamber is warmer and has a light wind blown through it to ensure that the cheese matures to perfection. This takes a minimum of 20 days.
Then they are wrapped and ready to come to London!
So, if you haven't already tried it, get your hands on some. Pronto. It is a beautiful thing - a great big flavour but with an unbelievably smooth and creamy texture. When it's really fresh and at the right temperature (it should be taken out of the fridge at least one hour before serving), you can slice off the top and spread it like butter on your favourite bread. As the bread du-jour seems to be sourdough, so give that a go... and if you like a little something sweet with your cheese, add some of our pumpkin jam.
Find a nice full, dry red wine to serve it with. Something from the Setúbal region will work perfectly - if it grows together it goes together and all that... try something from José Maria da Fonseca or Bacalhôa, two lovely regional wineries.