This column’s cheese of the week brings me back to one of my all-time favorite international cheese quests: my journey to the Serra da Estrela mountains of Portugal in search of Casa Matías cheese.
I was first introduced to this sheep’s milk cheese while I was living in San Francisco. I was immediately captivated by its decadent taste: boasting flavors of straw and butter with a distinctively sheepy tang and a soft, spongy texture, this is a one-of-a-kind, almost magical cheese. It’s rare that I feel so strongly about a product at first taste, but I instantly knew I had to visit the dairy where this cheese was made. I just had to. And while I initially balked at the 5,645-mile journey from San Francisco to the cheese plant, I realized upon my arrival in Serra da Estrela that it had been worth every mile.
I set foot in the villa of Casa Matías late one evening and was directed to a tiny six-room hotel. The next morning, I awoke to the smell of sheep’s milk curds cooking and I knew I must be close to the dairy. I ambled into the hotel dining room, where a sweet lady (who spoke no English) sat me down, served me warm bread, superb butter, marmalade and very strong coffee, then smiled and gave me the “hold on for one moment” sign as she ducked out of the room. She soon returned with a gingham-napkin-covered basket that she set on my table containing a mound of steaming hot, freshly made sheep’s milk ricotta. I was in heaven.
After breakfast, I asked the kind young man at the desk to direct me to the cheese plant, and he leaned over and pointed out of the window to the building just slightly downhill from us. I love when directions consist of a single gesture of the hand rather than a complex GPS route!
I walked down to the dairy and was introduced to Donna Rosa Matías, the head cheesemaker and founder of the cheese company, and her daughter (also named Rosa), who gave me a tour. The younger Rosa emphasized that the cheese is made with only the freshest sheep’s milk; their shepherds graze the Casa Matías herd in a nearby exiled Italian Contessa’s estate and the sheep are brought back to the adjacent barn to be milked daily.
At the plant I had the chance to watch the cheesemakers in action. The most unique aspect of this production process is the renneting of the milk with wild thistle produced only in this region. The thistle must be harvested precisely one hour before sunrise, then added to a cheesecloth bag and repeatedly dipped in milk and wrung out. Afterwards, the cheese is bandaged in cheesecloth so it doesn’t get punctured (since it is very soft when freshly made), and is washed and flipped daily for the first week or so. I peeked into the aging room to see the thousands of wheels all waiting to ripen, then stopped by the room where the ricotta for my breakfast was made. Naturally, I thanked them profusely.
After we finally reconvened and chatted for a bit, Donna Rosa asked me why on earth I had traveled all that way to visit her dairy. I told her that after one bite of her extraordinary cheese, I knew I had to meet her, and she smiled the sweetest smile and a tear formed in her eye. She gave me a huge hug and I teared up as well! I can always tell when a cheese is made with love, and the nuanced, inspired taste of Donna Rosa’s Casa Matías reveals her genuine passion for her craft.
Additional reporting by Madeleine James.