THE CHEESE FROM MENORCA
Mahon, or Mao, to give it it's local name, is a square cheese with rounded edges and corners. It has a tangy, sharp flavour and characteristic saltiness that reflects the rich maritime terroir on which the dairy cattle thrive. Mahon cheeses are sold at different stages of maturation: fresh at 21-60 days, when they are quite elastic, semi-cured at 2 - 5 months, when they become more brittle.
While you can still find traditional artisan farmhouse Formatge de Mao cheese produced from raw cow's milk, the bulk of cheeses are now produced by the bigger dairies using pasteurised milk. However, within the PDO classification the two must be distinguished by their labels. A green label denotes artisan Mao, while industrially produced cheese has a red label.
GREEN LABEL MAHON & HOW THEY ARE MADE
For the green label cheese, originally produced in Menorcan llocs (traditional small farms with stone-walled enclosures), the curds are gathered inside a fogasser, or cheesecloth, so the cheese is often called formatge de fogassa. The mass is pressed manually into a square shape, which loses the bulk of the whey, and the four corners of the cloth are then pulled in tight and tied with lligam, or cord. Next, the cheese is pressed again in a horizontal press, so that the creases of the cloth imprint themselves in a pattern on the upper surface of the cheese. The cheeses are then salted, and originally the farmer would sell them on to the island's skilled afinadores, cheese maturers, who would finish them in their own cellars. These specialists are now few and far between, however.
At Brindisa we buy our Mao from one the last two afinadores of artisan Mahon or Mao cheese on Menorca, Nicholas Cardona. Nicholas's grandfather, Josep Cardona, known as Bep de Torralba, founded Quesos Torralba in 1939 in the town of Alaior. This was a time when food was scarce, and Josep would barter with local farmers, offering the like of oil, salt and sugar in exchange for a turkey, vegetables, tomatoes, milk, and of course Mahon cheese. The cheese was Josep's passion, so he began maturing and selling the cheeses in the premises next door to his family home. He named the business after the nearby ancient stones of Torralba d'en Salord, which are the remains of a prehistoric town dating somewhere between 1000 BC and the Roman era.
The Mao Torralba cheeses that Nicolas matues are still handmade and pressed in selected dairies from raw milk. He chooses ones made between November and May, when the island is covered in good lush pasture, and ripens them to his exacting standards, greased with olive oil and paprika, to give the rinds elasticity. They are either semi-cured for around two months, so that they are ivory-coloured with a soft, buttery texture and an orange-brown rind; or aged in small batches for five months until yellow and hard, with a dark brown ring and a flavour that is intense and piquant.
Traditional affineurs like Nicholas Enrich of Quesos Torralba are now a rarity in Spain. A few years ago, before Covid-19 ground travel to a standstill, we went out to Spain and created a video of the brilliant process that is carried out to create the Mahon.
Brindisa Menorcan Mahon | Semi cured | BUY NOW
MAHON IN THE BRINDISA CHEESE ROOMS
All of the Mahon that is imported by Brindisa to the UK is stored and treated in the cheese room in Balham. Here, Rupert and Roi are able to store the cheese at the correct temperature and allow it to mature in the right environment and is oiled by hand every day.
THE FUTURE OF MENORCAN MAHON
Nicholas and his wife Rosa champion excellence and insist on paying much more than the industrial dairies for the cheeses, as their way of helping to sustain the true artisans and small farmers of the island, whose number is sadly reducing as they find it harder and harder to keep going.
WHAT TO SERVE IT WITH
The cheese are good with fruity white wines and big reds, and we serve them with homemade tomato jam on our menus at Brindisa. The aged Torralba is supremely good with honey!
See all of the Brindisa cheese accompaniments here.
THE BRITISH HOME TO SPANISH CHEESE
Brindisa began with cheese and has been importing and working with cheese from Spain for the past 30 years. Back in 1989, Brindisa founder, Monika Linton, started to bring back Spanish cheese to the UK with her brother Mark. Monika has always been on a mission and committed to discovering and supporting the small, often remote dairies wherever possible.
The range of cheese sold at Brindisa is probably the widest range available in the UK and what is so special about the cheese that Brindisa imports, is the ability to bring cheeses to our customers that are from the furthest, most isolated villages in rural Spain. This is possible because of the well established logistical chain that has been built up over the past 30 years and the strong relationships built with dairies. It is such a joy and a privilege to bring a handmade cheese from a small farm in Menorca and be able to sell it in London and explain why this cheese is so special.
Below you can find a little more about what we do and why we are totally obsessed with Spanish cheese...and why you should be too!