In 1830, when Gaspar Henriques de Paiva left his home in Monsanto, central Portugal, for the village of Azeitão in the Arrábida mountain district south of Lisbon, he took with him the winning formula for one of Europe’s tastiest cheeses.
One of the country’s gastronomic highlights, Queijo de Azeitão is a sumptuous, soft-centred cheese from the Setúbal Peninsula, an Atlantic region often referred to as the Costa Azul (Blue Coast).
Made from unpasteurised milk of ewes who roam free on the slopes of the Serra da Arrábida, it has been in production for nearly 200 years and is generally considered to be one of Portugal’s most delicious and distinctive cheeses, on a par with the ultra-creamy Queijo da Serra from the Estrela mountain region of central Portugal.
Gaspar Henriques de Paiva missed the mountain cheese from his homeland so decided to produce his own. Instead of rennet, he used the extract of a wild thistle (Cynara Cardunculus) which is abundant in the Arrábida region and proved to be the key ingredient in curdling the milk to perfection.
It is then cured for around twenty days, during which a yellow crust forms around the soft, creamy cheese to produce an extraordinarily unique and exceedingly tasty flavour.
Visitors exploring the area can purchase freshly-made Queijo de Azeitão in cafés and grocery stores in and around the towns of Setúbal, Sesimbra and Palmela, or directly from the manufacturers who are happy to meet and greet anyone who happens to drop by.
It is best eaten by carefully slicing off the top, scooping the cheese out with a spoon and serving it in generous dollops on a thick slice of wholemeal bread with a glass of wine on hand to wash it down from the many local vineyards. Perfect for an impromptu picnic.