There’s Brie from France, Manchego from Spain, and Cheddar from the UK, but what about Portuguese cheese? Portugal isn’t as famous as other countries for its cheese, and there isn’t as much variety as there is in France or the UK. A lot of cheese production is quite small, and cheese shops are rare—some of the best cheeses are to be found from small, artisanal producers at your local market.
However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t some great cheeses that are absolutely worth trying. And because these cheeses aren’t exported that often, it’s something that you can only really experience by visiting Portugal.
With that in mind, here are some of the top cheeses that you should look out for while in Portugal.
Queijo Serra da Estrela
Serra da Estrela cheese comes from the highest mountain in mainland Portugal, a place where sheep roam free in lush pastures. What makes it stand out is how it’s made – thistle flower is used to curdle the milk. This unique method means even vegetarians can enjoy it, as no animal rennet is used.
The making of Serra da Estrela cheese is a craft, done by hand with care and tradition. It’s so valued that the European Union has given it PDO status. This means it’s protected, ensuring that only cheese from this region, made in this specific way, can carry the name Serra da Estrela.
This cheese needs time to develop its character, resting for at least thirty days before it’s ready. While you can find Serra da Estrela cheese that’s been aged until hard, the cheese most people fall in love with is soft and creamy. It’s so soft, in fact, that slicing it is out of the question. Instead, the top of the cheese is opened, revealing a rich, gooey centre that’s perfect for spreading on bread or toast.
Queijo de Azeitão
Queijo de Azeitão is a delightful cheese from Portugal, cherished for its intricate flavours. The cheese originates from the regions of Palmela, Setúbal, and Sesimbra, all located to the south of Lisbon. These areas are renowned for their pastoral beauty and agricultural heritage, providing the ideal conditions for producing the high-quality sheep’s milk that is fundamental to Azeitão cheese.
Azeitão cheese holds PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) status, which assures that only cheese produced in this specific region and adhering to traditional methods can be called Queijo de Azeitão. This designation not only protects the cheese’s heritage but also guarantees its authenticity and quality to cheese lovers around the world.
In 2014, Queijo de Azeitão was recognized on the global stage, named as one of the 50 best gastronomic products in the world at the Great Taste Awards. This accolade is a testament to its exceptional quality and the mastery behind its production.
Queijo de Azeitão combines a unique blend of acidic, salty, and spicy tastes that captivate the palate. Made from the raw milk of sheep, this cheese undergoes a careful curing process until it reaches a perfect balance of semi-hard and buttery texture. Unlike harder cheeses, Azeitão cheese is best enjoyed spread, revealing its creamy richness.
Whether spread on a piece of warm, crusty bread or served as part of a sophisticated cheese platter, Azeitão cheese is a shining example of Portugal’s rich cheese-making tradition.
Queijo São Jorge
Queijo São Jorge, named after São Jorge, one of the Azores islands where it has been produced since the 15th century, is a firm dairy cheese that undergoes curing at room temperature. This process, essential for developing its distinctive texture and flavour, lasts for at least three months.
However, it is the older varieties of São Jorge that are most celebrated. These aged cheeses, some matured far beyond the minimum three months, command higher prices not just for their rarity but for the intense, flavour-packed crystals that form within.
This cheese is often compared to a Cheddar or Parmigiano Reggiano, although it has its own unique flavour that’s different to both. However, if you want something close to either, this is the Portuguese cheese to go for.
Queijo São Jorge has been graced with the Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status, recognising its unique qualities and tying it inseparably to its place of origin.
Queijo fresco, or fresh cheese, is a testament to the simplicity and purity of Portuguese dairy products. Its pure white appearance and silky texture make it a visual and sensory pleasure, reminiscent of ricotta but uniquely its own, as it is made directly from milk rather than whey.
Queijo fresco can be enjoyed in many ways, making it a versatile addition to any meal. As a starter, it offers a light, refreshing introduction to a meal, cleansing the palate and setting the stage for more robust flavours to come. However, its true versatility shines when it’s transformed into a dessert. Topped with a drizzle of honey or a scattering of nuts, queijo fresco becomes a simple yet sophisticated treat, marrying the natural sweetness of the toppings with the cheese’s creamy texture.
In the Azores, the tradition of enjoying queijo fresco is a reflection of the islands’ rich dairy heritage. The lush, green pastures and clean, fresh air contribute to the production of high-quality milk, which in turn, is used to make this creamy cheese. It’s often served with fresh white cornbread and a red pepper paste. The addition of tangy red pepper sauce adds a delightful kick, creating a perfect balance between the creamy softness of the cheese and the vibrant, spicy notes of the sauce.
Serpa cheese, originating from the district of Beja in eastern Portugal, is a testament to the traditional cheese-making practices of the Alentejo region. This semi-soft sheep’s milk cheese offers a delightful alternative to those familiar with Pecorino, bearing a resemblance in taste and texture but distinguished by its unique method of production. The flavour of Serpa cheese is rich and complex, with a creamy texture that melts in the mouth.
The process for making Serpa cheese involves drying the thistle leaves and soaking them in water to create an extract. This natural extract is then mixed with heated milk, initiating the curdling process without the need for animal rennet, making Serpa cheese a choice for those seeking vegetarian-friendly options.
Once curdled, the cheese is carefully shaped into molds. These newly formed cheeses are then wrapped in muslin cloth, a practice that aids in their ripening while allowing them to breathe and develop their distinctive character. The rind of Serpa cheese is noted for being thin and malleable, enveloping an interior that is semi-soft and exhibits a beautiful yellowish-white hue.
Queijo de Cabra Transmontano
Queijo de Cabra Transmontano is a hard cheese from Portugal, deeply rooted in the traditions of the Bragança region, nestled in the northern mountains of Trás-os-Montes.
This cheese is known for its firmness, an intense yet pleasant aroma, and a distinct slightly spicy note, making it a standout addition to any cheese selection. It matures for at least sixty days, during which it acquires its hard consistency and deepens in flavor, with the most mature varieties, known as “velho,” being aged between ninety days and two years. These older cheeses may also be treated with olive oil or paprika, adding to their richness and complexity.
The process of making Queijo de Cabra Transmontano is a careful blend of tradition and skill. After milking, the raw goat milk is filtered and gently heated, a crucial step that prepares the milk for curdling while preserving its natural flavors. The curd is then seasoned with salt and cured under conditions of low temperature and high humidity, fostering the development of its characteristic semi-hard crust and smooth, white interior.
Protected by PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) status, Queijo de Cabra Transmontano is a celebration of its region’s heritage, guaranteeing that only cheese made from the milk of Serra goats in this specific area can carry the name.