Cheese of the Week: Torta La Serena

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“Hmm, this tastes like medical supplies.”

You never quite know with food writers, but a fellow journalist made this comment the other night when we tasted Torta La Serena at a restaurant, and I think she meant the remark to convey something between admiration and skepticism. La Serena is distinctive, no doubt—but I’m partial to its distinctiveness.

A sheep’s milk cheese from the Extremadura region of Spain, La Serena (“the calm place”) came into being sometime in the twelfth century. What creates its unique twang is that the milk is coagulated using rennet extracted from cardoon, a member of the thistle family. How did shepherds in the twelfth century figure out that cardoon has a coagulating agent? No clue. But its presence imparts the cheese with a taste that is both fruity and vegetal, and a little bitter. (Medical supplies might taste a little bitter, yes?) The texture poses no challenges: It’s lusciously creamy, and becomes more so as the cheese ages. The wedge pictured here is medium-ripe: Its center can get so runny that you can cut the top off a whole wheel and spoon it out.

It pairs well with sweeter, hard cheeses such as Parmigiano Reggiano. Riojas can nicely match wine-tricky La Serena, though I’ve found in the past that the cheese’s novel acidity pairs improbably well with a gin and tonic.

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