It’s dispiriting to think that raw-milk cheeses are dwindling in number and that American cheese counters will have fewer in five years than they do now. But no one who follows the artisan cheese world would dispute that forecast.
America’s raw-milk cheesemakers can no longer handle the anxiety of wondering when an FDA inspector might knock, abscond with samples and return with lab results that don’t mesh with their own. So they are adapting their raw-milk recipes—some for acclaimed, prize-winning wheels—to pasteurized milk or dropping the cheese from their repertoire. Increasingly, European cheesemakers can’t justify the paperwork and testing required to comply with our ever-stricter standards for raw-milk cheese, especially when these producers have decades or even centuries of safe practice behind them.
Enough ranting. At least cheese shops have a few raw-milk wheels that we can still savor and celebrate. Pico Melero, an aged sheep’s-milk wheel from Spain, remains firmly in the traditional camp—a farmstead cheese made with animal rennet and unpasteurized milk. It resembles Manchego, Zamorano and Roncal—Spain’s more famous PDO (name-protected) sheep’s milk wheels—but unlike them, it is made by a single producer and does not have PDO status.
The source of this lovely cheese is a 1,500-acre family estate in the Duero, the same region that yields the fabulous Ribera del Duero wines. The family produces wine, too, and operates a sort of hunting lodge on the ranch. It’s one of the oldest haciendas in Spain, with 13th-century roots, and in the same family since 1839.
The wheels of Pico Melero range in size but average about five pounds. They have the same cylindrical shape as Manchego but not the cross-hatched rind. And they are aged longer—a minimum of nine months. Although we do see year-old Manchego here, most of it is three to six months old. Consequently, Pico Melero is drier and more brittle than most Manchego and not quite as buttery. The cocoa-colored natural rind is thin and hard and appears to have a coating.
The ivory interior is firm, with a few small openings and an appetizing aroma mingling lamb chops, bacon, grass and nuts. The cheese has a faint lactic scent, a distinctive sourish note that I never find in Manchego. It tastes a little wilder than other cheeses in this category, on the edge of gentility, but I find that intriguing. If you’re anticipating a Manchego-like taste experience, Pico Melero won’t meet your expectations, but I guarantee that it won’t disappoint.
Open a Ribera del Duero wine—I love the Pago de los Capellanos—or another juicy Spanish red wine like Alvaro Palacios’s Camins del Priorat.
Look for Pico Melero at Pasta Shop and Wine Thieves in Berkeley; Village Market in Oakland; Oxbow Cheese Merchant in Napa; V. Sattui in St. Helena; Corti Brothers, Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op and Taylor’s Market in Sacramento; Gourmet Cellar in Livingston, MT; and Rogue Creamery Cheese Store in Central Point, OR.
See You in Sonoma?
Learn to make succulent harissa-roasted chicken with sweet peppers and other dishes that you can enjoy well into fall at my cooking class at Ramekins in Sonoma. Join me in this beautiful teaching kitchen for a deep dive into both the sweet and savory side of yogurt. Turkish carrot salad…a grilled vegetable dish that will make you wish you had planted more zucchini…and a dessert that has been the hit of my book tour.
Yogurt Feast: Sweet and Savory
Sunday, July 26
11 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Ramekins Culinary School
450 West Spain Street
Menu and reservations here