Portuguese cheeses are varied and amazing, with many we never knew existed. Just as with wines, some are protected designation of origin cheeses — guaranteed to be produced within a designated area using traditional ingredients and methods. Fresh, creamy, chewy, or gooey, Portugal’s cheese constellation has something for everyone. Many small towns are actually quite famous for their cheese. And cheeses can use raw or pasteurized cow, sheep, or goat milk, or any combination of them. There are so many cheeses in Portugal we expect to make many new discoveries. But we wanted to share some of our latest favorites with you.
1. São Jorge Cheese
Portugal’s beautiful Azores Islands are chief among places to find cow’s milk cheeses. São Jorge has arguably the most popular cheese, named after the island itself. The milk comes from free-grazing cows as it has for 200 years. São Jorge cheese is prized for its tangy, nutty flavor and smooth, semi-hard consistency. It’s a well-melting cheese too, good for blending into mashed potatoes, omelets, and even for fondue. Of course, fresh bread makes a fine accompaniment for enjoying it as is, and the flavor gets stronger with age. Diana’s dad liked it so much when she gave him some that he ordered 7 pounds of it!
2. Évora Cheese
On a recent visit to the historical city of Évora in the Alentejo region of Portugal, we discovered that there’s a sheep breed called merino that freely grazes in the pastures. The process of making the cheese uses thistle flower rather than animal rennet. One of our favorite ways to eat it is so indulgent and delicious, we now make it this way at home. We start with a large round loaf of Alentejo bread called pão cabeca, or “bread with a head.” It appears bubbled up with a large lump on the top. We cut off the head, scoop out the loaf, put a round wheel of Évora cheese in it, peel a few garlic cloves, and stick them into the cheese. Then we bake the whole thing until the cheese is melty and the garlic is soft. We cut the pieces of bread head and use them to dip into the melted cheese. Yes, it is delicious and goes well with Portuguese wine.
3. Serra Da Estrela Cheese
Serra da Estrela cheese is one that we and all of our friends seek out regularly. It is made in the Serra da Estrela region where there are mountains filled with happily grazing sheep. Like the Évora cheese, it’s produced using thistle flower to curdle it, so it’s considered vegetarian. It comes in various consistencies based on length of aging. The most popular version is soft and buttery, so creamy we slice off the top of the cheese and scoop it out onto bread, toast, crackers, apple slices, our fingers — whatever we can. It is rich and gooey and absolutely wonderful. Sometimes Serra da Estrela cheese is called the “King of Portuguese Cheese” because of its immense popularity.
4. Rabaçal Cheese (And Serras De Panela Cheese)
Many of the unique cheeses in Portugal get their distinctive flavors from using a blend of milks from different animals. Rabaçal cheese comes from an area of the Coimbra region toward the center of the country. It uses a mixture containing two-thirds sheep milk and one-third goat milk. The animals graze freely in pastures with a lot of local thyme growing throughout, giving the milk a unique and specific flavor. It is a smooth, semi-hard cheese with a spicy flavor that lends itself well to accompaniments such as honey or jam.
Another mixed cheese from the nearby mountains, called Serras de Penela cheese, combines sheep and cow’s milk for a slightly sweeter and more delicate taste. Delicious versions come from Ansião in the Leiria district.
5. Serpa Cheese
Serpa cheese is a semi-soft cheese made from raw sheep’s milk. It is made in the Beja district in the Alentejo region near the border of Spain. Again, thistle is used to curdle the cheese rather than animal rennet. This is one of the most famous cheeses in the area, probably because it has a strong, spicy flavor that goes very well with local cuisine and regional wines. It can be aged from 4 months to 2 years, and the longer it ages, the stronger the flavor. Serpa cheese is great served with bread and wine or as an ingredient in dishes with pork or ham, especially the prized porco preto, or “black pork,” which comes from the free-range Iberian black pigs exclusively fed acorns in the Alentejo countryside. The rind of the cheese is orange in color from being brushed with olive oil and paprika during the process. Its texture is creamy when less aged and hard when aged to maturity.
6. Nisa Cheese
Nisa cheese from the Alentejo region uses milk from the saloio sheep known for its high-quality milk. The cheese is unpasteurized and aged for at least 45 days. Using thistle to curdle the milk adds a flavorful dimension. Enjoy it on its own or included in dishes such as vegetable quiche. Although made with thistle rennet, Nisa cheese is subtle, slightly sweet, and creamy. This makes it perfect for pairing with nuts, fruits, honey, and jams. Nisa cheese production is still artisanal, with a couple dozen small local creameries and farmhouses making exceptional cheese. Nisa cheese is semi-hard and its flavor is rich and mildly acidic, pairing well with a full-bodied wine.
7. Azeitão Cheese
Just south of Lisbon is the Setúbal area where another goopy, creamy cheese is made. Azeitão cheese made from unpasteurized sheep milk bears a striking resemblance to Serra da Estrela cheese in the north. The reason is that, when a shepherd emigrated to the town of Azeitão, he brought with him black dairy sheep and cheesemakers from his home up north and encouraged the production of “serra” type cheeses like the ones he loved. The buttery soft cheese that resulted is quite similar to the Serra da Estrela cheese, but is distinctive with more of a wild, sweet, and herbaceous flavor that permeates the milk. To learn all about Azeitão cheese and maybe even get a lesson in cheesemaking, book an appointment at the Azeitão Cheese Museum.
8. Graciosa Island Cheese
This was one of our most recent discoveries, and now we can’t get enough of it. Graciosa Island cheese comes from Graciosa Island in the Azores. The island has been classified by UNESCO as a World Biosphere Reserve, designated as a learning place for sustainable development. Graciosa Island cheese is a pasteurized cow’s milk cheese cured for at least 3 months. It develops a slightly sharp flavor with a texture that is firm when cut, melting into creamy goodness in your mouth. We think of it like a delicious sharp cheddar, perfect for slicing or cubing, and served with bread, toast, crackers, and fruit. We have discovered some producers making Graciosa cheese with herbs and spices like garlic, parsley, oregano, or local pepper.
9. Transmontano Goat Cheese
Goat cheeses often get strong reactions for or against. Wherever you fall on the spectrum, Transmontano goat cheese from northern Portugal is worthy of consideration. Producers use milk from the serrana negra breed of goat. The cheese can be young and relatively soft or aged up to 2 years creating a harder, more pungent cheese. Sometimes the cheese will have a slight tinge to the rind as it is often rubbed with olive oil or paprika. Locals from the Trás-os-Montes region enjoy it with rye bread and some fabulous local red wine.
10. São Miguel Cheese
Another great island cheese, São Miguel cheese comes from the largest and most populated island in the Azores. It’s made with pasteurized cow’s milk and matured for a minimum of 9 months. São Miguel is known as the “Green Island,” because only 5 percent of its land is used for commercial and residential use. That is probably why the happy cows graze freely in abundant green, grassy meadows, producing excellent milk. While similar to the São Jorge cheese of its neighbor island, we find Sao Miguel to be a little creamier and a little less pungent or sharp, but equally tasty and satisfying. Delicious in cubes or slices, we also think São Miguel would be a good cheese to melt into casseroles, au gratin potatoes, mac and cheese, or on a sandwich.
11. Curd Cheese (Requeijão) And Fresh Cheese (Queijo Fresco)
These are two variants of soft cheese similar to a ricotta cheese. Requeijão is produced with leftovers from the cheesemaking process. Cheesemakers add milk to the whey, heat it, and then strain it to get a soft, mild cheese. Traditionally, the cheese was wrapped in cabbage leaves and shipped in wicker baskets. Serra da Estrela is known for its requeijão cheese. Queijo fresco, or “fresh cheese,” is made from lightly pressed curds of cow’s milk and has a neutral flavor similar to farmer’s cheese or cottage cheese. Both of these soft and mild cheeses are refreshingly light. They can be served savory with herbs or sweet with squares of quince paste, honey, nuts, or preserves.
Portuguese Cheese Pro Tip
Try all the Portuguese cheese you can. Even if it smells stinky, it might be very mild and good. Portugal is full of wonder from surprising facts to tantalizing food. So don’t be surprised if you too discover more new favorite cheeses you never knew existed.
Our TravelAwaits writers have become quite the cheese experts: