Let's take a peek inside the mailbag. Ooh! It's my first official question! And a good one, at that. Shall we? Let's go see how we can help our cheese friends today!
Hey Cheese Snob!
I bought a piece of "Torta del Cesar" from [a discount cheese place] (so, naturally I assume by its deep discount that it was probably slightly past its prime.) It was a soft and oozing cheese. It smelled pretty bad, and tasted bad as well. From reading online, this cheese is supposed to smell bad and has a sharp taste.
How do I recognize a "smelly" cheese that is supposed to smell that way, and one that is just bad?
That's a great question, and one that cheesemongers hear all the time: How do we know when our cheese has gone bad?
But first, let's discuss your Torta del Casar conundrum. First, I want to let our readers know that Torta del Casar has a very close cousin by the name of Queso de la Serena, so all information I'm about to give can be applied to either cheese.
This cheese, made from raw (unpasteurized) sheep's milk in the Extremadura region of Spain, fits into an interesting category: it's thistle-renneted. Whereas most European cheesemakers use animal-based rennet as the catalyst for coagulation of the milk -- the separation of the curds from the whey -- a small percentage use vegetable-based enzymes; a small percentage of these cheeses are precipitated with an extract of the cardoon thistle plant. Thistle-renneted cheeses are most often found in Spain and Portugal, but I've also heard there are a few from Italy, as well.
Thistle seems to act like the bloomy, penicillium candidum rind on soft-ripened cheeses: it causes the cheeses to soften as they ripen, rather than firm up. Thistle also gives a cheese a distinctly spicy flavor that intensifies as it ripens.
So, is Torta del Casar really supposed to taste and smell bad? Well, "bad" is relative, but to those of us unaccustomed to its flavor and aroma -- especially if you're like me and you grew up in the 'burbs with individually-wrapped pasteurized process cheese food -- this cheese can be quite a challenge.
If you would like to explore its unusual flavor and expand your queso horizons, I recommend buying a small piece of Torta del Casar from a different shop. Nothing against the shop you have in mind, but you are not likely to get information on the ripeness of any cheese there from the counter staff, let alone be offered a sample. What you want is to find the cheese when it's younger and firmer. An experienced cheesemonger will be able to tell you if the Torta del Casar is young, ripe, or very ripe.
If you find a young wheel, ask for a sample and go slow with tasting it. Don't just gobble it down; really savor it and let it melt around your mouth while you inhale. If you like it, buy a small piece and eat some every few days. You'll note how it changes in flavor and texture. Torta del Casar is a fascinating, complex cheese with flavors we don't find in many other cheeses. It goes really well with chorizo, if you are into that sort of thing.
And, in all honesty, not everyone is going to love Torta del Casar. Lucky for us, there are thousands of other cheeses out there.
I hope this helps!