Manchego and feta are two of the more interesting and important cheeses in the Mediterranean flavor. Manchego is Spain’s most famous cheese, and is made in the plain of La Mancha. Only the milk of La Manchega sheep can be used to make manchego.
Feta is a Greek cheese. All real manchego is imported; all feta is not. Domestic feta is made with cow’s milk, while imported feta is made with sheep’s milk. Though imported feta can be overpowering and not particularly friendly to the typical American palate, it is still the preferred feta in areas where there is a large Greek or Middle Eastern population.
Manchego is produced in Spain, where its color ranges from white to pale yellow depending on the age of the cheese. It is a pasteurized product made of sheep’s milk and is usually not sold before 13 weeks, then further aging up to 3 years. The flavor ranges from subtly salty to piquant, depending on the age of the cheese. Younger cheeses tend to be milder and nuttier; older cheeses are quite a bit more assertive in flavor. Older Manchego has grating characteristics similar to that of Parmigiano-Reggiano.
For a fast and easy appetizer or small plate offering, I like to lay slices of manchego over thinly sliced jamon serrano (Spanish equivalent of prosciutto). Drizzle olive oil lightly over the top and serve with rounds of crusty bread.
Feta is produced domestically – primarily in California and Wisconsin – and it is mainly white in color. To give feta its trademark saltiness, the brine is pickled in salt and water. The longer the salting, the harder the cheese becomes. Before using, saltier fetas should be rinsed under cold water or soaked in a bit of milk to temper the flavor.
Feta means “slice” in Greek. Sheep’s milk feta has a sharper, more pungent, intense flavor. Feta made from cow’s milk is much milder and has a more granular texture than its sheep’s milk counterpart. Domestic feta is available in flavors (tomato and basil, for example). Some feta is made from goat’s milk, but it is hard to find.
In its simplest use, chunks of feta are drizzled with quality olive oil (a Greek olive oil would be my preference) and served with olives (kalamata would be my choice) and crusty bread.
In a more elaborate way, use it to make this delicious Greek salad:
Mediterranean Pasta Salad
4 ounces cavatappi or rotini pasta cooked al dente, drained, rinsed
3/4 pound bulb fresh fennel, trimmed, cored, washed
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
6 ounces feta cheese, crumbled
1/2 cup oil-cured olives, such as gaeta or kalamata, pitted and chopped
1/2 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley
Julienne the fennel bulb. In a large bowl, combine the cooked pasta with the fennel, lemon juice, olive oil, and ground pepper. Toss to combine.
Split the salad into two portions and arrange on chilled plates. Sprinkle on the feta cheese, olives and flat-leaf parsley.