One sign of a true cheese enthusiast is a refrigerator full of little wrapped nubbins, pieces too big to throw away but too pitiful-looking to serve to a guest. Recently, my husband and I had an entire cheese course of nubbins—probably 10 different two-ounce remnants making their last stand. The one I kept coming back to was Cabra Raiano, a semisoft Portuguese goat’s milk cheese. I nibbled at some of the others, but this one I polished off. Even as a days-old leftover, it was sublime.
Cabra Raiano reminds me of Torta del Casar and Torta de la Serena, the spreadable, smelly sheep’s milk cheeses from the Extremadura region of Spain, and their Portuguese cousin, Serra da Estrela. In fact, the Raiano is produced just across the border from Extremadura, and although it is made with goat’s milk, the family resemblance is obvious
Cabra Raiano is a farmstead cheese, made with the thermized milk of Murciana goats. Thermization, a heat treatment, stops short of pasteurization so the FDA views Raiano as a raw-milk product requiring maturation of at least 60 days. The roughly one-pound disks probably don’t get much more aging than that before they are shipped.
Initially, I assumed that Cabra Raiano was coagulated with cardoon flowers, like the Spanish cheeses mentioned above. This natural coagulant, extracted from an artichoke relative, gives ripe cheeses a faint bitter edge and makes them as runny as fondue when mature. The Raiano wasn’t bitter and it wasn’t runny, but it had the vegetal note and the squishy texture that I associate with cardoon-coagulated cheese. Manuel Maia, who represents the cheese in the U.S., straightened me out. The Raiano recipe calls for animal rennet, so my cardoon theory bit the dust.
The flesh-colored exterior is thin, damp and sticky, typical of brine-washed cheeses. If you want to experience the aroma at its most robust, bring the cheese to room temperature on a board or tray underneath an overturned bowl. At serving time, lift and smell the bowl. Whew! What a fabulous, fascinating amalgam of garlic, aged beef, mushrooms, celery seed, artichoke and baby burp (sorry).
Like many such cheeses, the flavor is less pronounced than the fragrance. Raiano does not taste funky or pungent; it has a big personality but it’s not scary. The off-white interior is semisoft, supple and luscious, with a long, tart, tangy finish and just the right amount of salt. It’s one of the most compelling cheeses I’ve had in a long time.
Look for Cabra Raiano at the Pasta Shop in Oakland and Berkeley; Cheese Board in Berkeley; Draeger’s (multiple locations); Nugget Markets (multiple locations); Browns Valley Market in Napa; Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op; Sunshine Foods and V. Sattui in St. Helena; and Pacific Market in Sebastopol. Pour an Albariño or a mellow red wine with it—nothing too tannic. Syrah, Merlot and softer-styled Cabernet Sauvignon are all likely to work.