The undisputed queen of Portugal’s many first-rate cheeses is queijo da serra (serra cheese), made from the milk of ewes leisurely grazing in elevated pastures full of wild vegetation throughout the Estrela mountain region of central Portugal.
Produced during the winter months – from November through April – this superbly creamy cheese with its distinctive 18-centimetre diameter is still manually processed by farmers and their families, who continue to relish the ritual of preparing the milk before curdling, salting and curing one of southern Europe’s most sought-after dairy products.
Traditionally bound in cloth, this highly distinctive and very appetising cheese has been produced in the area for thousands of years. It was even documented by Lucius Junius Moderatus Columella, a prominent writer on agriculture in the Roman empire.
In 1287, King Dinis of Portugal created the first cheese market in Celorico da Beira, a rustic town located in the heart of the Serra da Estrela region. During Portugal’s golden Age of Discovery, it was a sustainable and highly nutritious source of food for the intrepid explorers and their crew who spent countless months away at sea.
The best-quality queijo da serra is manufactured in and around the towns and villages throughout the districts of Viseu, Coimbra, Guarda and Castelo Branco where production centres are open to visitors and annual cheese festivals are a major highlight for tourists and locals alike.
Queijo da serra is a cheese of precise characteristics: pale-yellow in colour with a compact, gloopy texture contained within a smooth, semi-soft rind. It takes 4-6 litres of the ewes’ milk to make a single kilo of the prized Serra da Estrela cheese, which is sold in a flattened, cylindrical shape with a slight bulge on its upper side.
Coagulated with thistle, the ewes’ milk is curdled at 30°C for around forty-five minutes before being slowly drained, after which the individual cheese forms are aged at temperatures of between 6-12°C in 80-95% humidity. The cheese is washed and turned frequently during the ageing process, which lasts for anything between 30 and 120 days.
Representing a natural barrier between northern and southern Portugal, the Serra da Estrela mountain region comprises the highest point on the Portuguese mainland at 1,993 metres of altitude (rising to 2,351 metres, Pico in the Azores is Portugal’s highest mountain) set amidst large swathes of humid grassland harbouring many endemic types of flora.
The large numbers of rock rose, holm and Lucombe oak that exist in the area are indications of the region’s predominating Mediterranean climate, with the few examples of yew and common baldcypress trees being the rare survivors of Serra da Estrela’s original forest.
Serra da Estrela (indicated on the Google map below) is particularly appealing during the warm summer months when the meadows are blanketed by buttercups and dotted with grazing sheep.
Besides the region’s refined queijo da serra, visitors are urged to keep an eye out for the thick-coated Estrela mountain dog, which is endemic to Portugal and has been used to guard the sheep for many centuries.
Most tourists are unaware of the fact that Serra da Estrela is also a popular winter sports destination with a modern ski resort where skiing and snow-boarding is possible for up to 150 days of the year.
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