Bring on the funk baby! Today, we are delving into the world of thistle-rennet cheeses. This unique and delicious little darling is a name-protected cheese from Southwest Portugal called Azeitao. Azeitao is named after the pretty little village of the same name where it was first made. The village is located at the foot of the Serra da Arrabida (a 500 meter mountain – the highest peak in that area of Portugal).
Azeitao is a special little raw sheep’s milk cheese. What makes it so unique, is the rennet used to coagulate the milk in the cheesemaking process. In making any cheese, an enzyme must be added to act as a coagulant, in effect curdling the milk – bringing the curds (milk solids) together and separating them from the whey (milk liquids). There are a few different rennet types used to make cheese: animal rennet (used in most old-world European cheeses), which comes from the stomach lining of the corresponding young animal (calf for cow’s milk cheese, kid for goat’s milk cheese, lamb for sheep’s milk cheese – a bit disturbing, I know); microbial rennet, which is made from microorganisms through a fermentation process and is vegetarian; and vegetable rennet, in which the enzymes are extracted from plants and are modified to act in the same manner as an animal rennet – also vegetarian.
The Azeitao is made with a vegetable rennet, which is taken from the cardoon – a plant in the thistle family. This type of rennet is commonly used in cheeses from Spain and Portugal and results in certain characteristics that are unique to this cheese family. First, these cheeses are typically quite soft and sometimes runny – like a pudding consistency. Because of this, you’ll often see thistle-rennet cheeses wrapped and bound in some sort of cloth – to hold them together as they age. Second, this vegetable rennet adds a unique flavor – a bit herby, a bit floral and definitely a little funky in my opinion.
I had my first thistle-rennet cheese several years ago in a Murray’s class. It was the first cheese I had encountered that made me say – “ewww” instead of “ahhhh”. Seriously, I was initially really put off by this funky and unusual flavor. But, as it is with many foods, I kept trying cheeses from this family (as many mongers swore by these unique cheeses) and sure enough, I totally acquired a taste. Now, I’m a total fan.
Ok… enough chit chat. Let’s get to the tasting:
From the outside, this cheese looks sort of like an English Muffin. It’s around that size and weights about eight ounces. It has a yellowish smooth crust of sorts and is very soft and malleable. I could easily stick my finger right through the rind if I were to give it a little pressure. This is not a bargain cheese. It cost me twenty bucks. I know… I splurged. This is more of a special occasion party cheese, which I’m currently enjoying all by my lonesome. 🙂
One of the coolest things about this cheese, is the way it is typically enjoyed. It is common to cut the top right off the cheese and then eat it with a spoon!! Or spoon it on to a yummy bread. So of course, I had to try this:
When I took a spoonful of my Azeitao, it wasn’t exactly as pudding-like as I was expecting, but I’m guessing that could be because it’s not quite fully mature yet. The buyer at Barnyard, a cute little cheese shop on Avenue C, told me this specific cheese is two months old – right past the legal age for raw-milk cheese, which is sixty days. When I read about Azeitao in my Mastering Cheese book by Max McCalman, he says the age for perfect ripeness is more like three months, so I’m wondering if it might get more runny as it ages a little bit?
I take a big sniff first – the rind smells a little like olives to me. The paste, sort of smells like a sharp cheddar, but with a definite funkiness. I take a spoonful in my mouth… the paste inside is soft, smooth, creamy and kind of weird (in a wonderfully delicious kind of way). At first, it tastes sour… then it turns sort of sweet and floral… then it slowly starts to get stronger and a bit bitter and that bitter taste lingers for a little afterward and then finally leaves me with a sweet flavor again. This is one complex and interesting cheese!
Here are a couple more photos I took… me and the Azeitao, having fun on the roof:
Azeitao with the Williamsburg Bridge in the background.
And here is the Azeitao with the NYC skyline and the Empire State Building in the background.
So, to conclude my cheesy Friday, I’ll leave you with this… Azeitao is definitely a good introduction to the world of thistle-rennet cheeses. It offers a distinct flavor and a cheese experience you might never have had before! And… if you want to try something fun and adventurous with some friends, get one of these babies and cut the top off and eat it together with spoons. I mean, what is more fun than that? And finally… remember that if you don’t like it at first – give it another try. As I said, I thought this stuff was gross at first! Now I’m eating spoonful after spoonful and enjoying every bite. Mmmmmmm.
Happy weekend! See you next week!