I got a little panicky yesterday. I have less than 40 cheese slots left. I worry that I wasted too much time mired in an endless onslaught of triple cream brie. Now there is so much cheese to eat, and so little time. In order to address this I have done some research and made a “hit list” of cheese. Really, 100 cheeses is just scratching the surface. However, if I do manage to find the remaining 40 or so on my list I should be representing a relatively even-handed look at the cheeses of today. Just so you know, there is a method to my madness!
Back to the Mediterranean! Well to Minorca, which is the most northerly of the Balearic islands in the Mediterranean, technically part of Spain. Minorca is the home of a historic and beloved cheese – Mahon, also known as Mao. It’s an ancient cow cheese that comes in both raw and pasteurized-lucky for me, mine is raw! Do you know why raw is always better? It’s because cheese is all about bacteria-pasteurizing milk kills all the bacteria-then you have to start all over again. It’s never going to be quite right-that’s why-if you aren’t pregnant, and if you have the option-go for raw. Raw will almost always be more intense and more delicious.This message was brought to you by raw.
Minorca is quite a remote Mediterranean island. Historically, the people there made cheese as a subsistence food to keep their precious commodity of protein safe in a land of no refrigeration. Back in the day it was always a sheep cheese-and records of cheese making here go all the way back to the 13th century. However, the British invaded in the 1700’s and brought cows with them. Luckily, they left the cows behind, and the island switched to making cow cheese with the same methods: enter, Mahon.
Things got kind of interesting for Mahon after the British left. The cheese became a trade commodity on which an entire new class of people based their livelihood- the “gatherer-ripeners.” These folks emerged as a distinct social class, the first real cheese middle men. They controlled all aspects of the cheese on island and made it a consistent product. They traded goods to the farmers and received fresh cheese from the farmers in exchange. The gatherer-ripeners then took these cheeses to their caves for the finishing. They then sold these cheeses at market, often for export, where its fame spread.
This basically continues today on the Island. About 300 families create the milk which is now ripened by one of a few affineurs on island-perhaps a descendent of the historic gatherer-ripeners! Affinage is really where it’s at with the creation of Mahon. All young Mahon is kind of the same-generic, it’s the ripening in underground caves with a controlled climate that makes all the difference. Depending on the desired finished product, the cheese will spend between 2-10 months in affinage. The rind is created by rubbing butter, paprika and olive oil into the cushion shaped cheese at regular intervals during this period-which kind of sounds like fun!
Mahon is eaten at different stages. I think mine is the older version, as it’s pretty hard and parmesan looking, not a light and supple cheese. The rind is orange and I think inedible. The interior is pretty yellow looking and a little speckled with crystallization, I hope I’m in for a crunch! It’s a very hard and firm looking cheese, but it’s not crumbling at all. It’s totally keeping its act together. The smell is mild and almost nutty, no hint of nastiness in the least.
Astringent! Salty! Holy Hannah, my mouth just puckered right up. I wasn’t expecting that kind of tartness in a cheese aged like this-usually a cheese has mellowed a little. It’s super sour and my saliva glands have just gone into overtime, squirting like mad in order to deal with this taste. The flavour has no subtlety to me at all. I taste salt, I taste bitter. Those tastes are so strong that any other note I should be catching is completely annihilated. The texture is firm, but does break down nicely on the palate. It doesn’t melt really, it just evaporates into a salty liquid. You know how sometimes a really ugly chick is the most popular girl in her home town because she’s basically the only girl? I suspect this may be sort of the case with Mahon. If you were stuck on an island in the Mediterranean with really only one cheese available, I bet you would think it was pretty fantastic too. As for me, I’ll take a pass.