Spain is an internationally known cheese making country. But, her neighbor on the Iberian Peninsula also makes some wonderful cheeses that should be tried and enjoyed.
What is Azeitão?
Azeitão is a semi-soft cheese made with unpasteurized sheep’s milk. It has a strong herbal flavor; what I like to call “stinky feet cheese.”
The best time to get Azeitão cheese is in the spring when the sheep are outside grazing on the abundant grass. In the winter, the cheese can be difficult to find.
Wild thistle (Cynara Cardunculus)
Besides the taste, one of the most unique things about Azeitão is the wild thistle rennet that is used to make the sheep’s milk coagulate.
Most commercial cheeses use rennet made from the stomach lining of calves. But, because Azeitão uses a wild thistle rennet, the cheese is truly vegetarian, which most cheeses are not.
It also means that the cheese is more difficult to make.
How to eat Azeitão
Azeitão can get a little harder when it matures, but the cheese is usually semi-soft. So, you won’t slice it. Instead, the best way to enjoy Azeitão is to use a knife to carefully slice off the top of the rind. Then, use a spoon to get a dollop of the cheese and put it on a piece of bread.
This method is perfect for a picnic!
PDO (Protected designation of origin)
Azeitão is a PDO (Protected designation of origin) product. That means the cheese is unique to the area where it is prepared, processed, and produced. So, only cheese produced in the region of Setubal, Palmela, and Sesimbra can be called Azeitão.
Sometimes, this idea of PDO can be difficult for Americans to understand because we don’t have similar protections in the United States.
Consider the well-known case of champagne. Only sparkling wine produced in the Champagne region of France can be called champagne. Otherwise, it’s just sparkling wine.
There are designations like this all over the European Union from the Prądnik bread in Krakow to the Sorana bean in Tuscany.
Personally, I like these PDO laws. It helps to preserve the culinary culture of different regions. This is especially important in a world where there is so much homogenization and industrial food production.
Where to get Azeitão
Azeitão cheese is available all over Portugal. We bought some in Lisbon at the Mercado da Baixa, which makes sense since the Setúbal area where the cheese is produced is just south of Lisbon.
Or, you could take a short road trip to the Setúbal region. It’s only about 40 minutes from Lisbon by car. You can get to Setúbal by bus as well, but if you’re visiting a farm to see where the cheese is made, keep in mind that the area is rural and it will be difficult to get to a farm using public transportation.
There are lots of family dairy farms in the Setúbal area. One of them is Fernando & Simões. You can visit their farm and see the operation and taste some Azeitão. But, if you can’t make it to Fernando & Simões, their cheese is for sale in markets, too.