A true Spanish Manchego is made from 100% whole milk from sheep raised in the La Mancha region of Spain and it has a distinct flavor and appearance. The wild herbs of this harsh, dry environment lend unique characteristics to the sheeps milk, helping to create the cheese's full, lingering, unforgettable flavor. Local cheesemakers use grass molds which impart a unique zigzag pattern in Manchego's inedible rind, contributing to its distinct appearance. The cheese is usually sold in a hard form after several months of aging. Manchego is described as Spain's most famous cheese, and it is widely available in the United States. In Latin America the term Manchego is used to describe a simpler, usually younger melting cheese made from cows milk.
Aside from being a gastronomical delight, Manchego is a wonderful example of why there is no simple issue in the food business, particularly in those areas where it as much a craft as an industry.
A session at this year's IDFA Dairy Forum focused on geographic indicators, more specifically, on the threat posed by proposals to the World Trade Organization that would restrict the use of certain food names by companies from outside the areas of origin.
It seems industry groups in the European Union and elsewhere want to protect the names of things like Parma ham, Parmigiano cheese, and Feta. The opposition comes largely (but not exclusively) from the U.S. In many cases, these terms have become generic, opponents argue, and in others, they no longer represent specific, traditional handcrafted products, and therefore should be public domain.
"A good example is Swiss cheese vs. Swiss chocolate," says Rusty Bishop, director of the Wisconsin Center for Diary Research. "When consumers buy Swiss cheese they don't necessarily think it is made in Switzerland, but when they buy Swiss chocolate, they do."
That's great for Swiss cheese lovers and Swiss cheese manufacturers, but it might not hold true for Manchego. Last year one of the world's largest cheese manufacturers rolled out a new processed cheese product it calls Manchego. It comes in packets of individual slices, and it's certainly not made from the milk of La Mancha sheep. The new product may be similar to the Latin American Manchego, but anyone working to bring traditional Spanish food to the U.S. could argue that a Manchego slice undermines their own brand-building efforts.
Two sides to every argument; or perhaps more.
Couldn't the Manchego made in the United States be called Manchego style? Bishop says the issue of allowing the use of terms like "style" and "type" has not been part of the WTO discussions. The proposals would simply ban all use of the word for those manufacturers who are geographically deficient. But many imported foods carry a country of origin disclosure, and Bishop says even a consumer of average intelligence can distinguish between a Manchego from Spain selling at $12 a pound and a Manchego cheese selling at $3.29 for 14 slices.
His point is well-taken, even by those who might tend to take the other side of the overall debate.
Robert LaValva, is a member of Slow Food, an international organization that promotes quality over quantity and efficiency in all things food related.
"Appreciating finely crafted foods requires a degree of education and interest, so I think most potential consumers are going to be able to tell the difference," says LaValva who has worked with Slow Foods' Raw Milk Cheese Consortium. "I think some of these efforts are a bit excessive in their protectionism. But on the other hand, a name is a symbol of a food's uniqueness."
Attorney George Salmas successfully argued to keep Manchego in the public domain on behalf of a California cheesemaker, not the company making the slices. Salmas gets to the crux of the opposition argument in noting that the WTO restrictions could prohibit a cheesemaker with a product of outstanding quality from using the name Gouda or gruyere simply because he or she works in the Midwest rather than in the Netherlands or Switzerland.
That would undoubtedly be wrong-perhaps just as wrong as making a processed cheese slice and calling it Manchego.