When I was at Quinta do Vallado, we were drinking Port with Serra,” David Leite recalled as he cut the top off a wheel of Zimbro, a cheese similar to Queijo Serra da Estrela, the mountain sheeps’ milk round that’s one of northern Portugal’s greatest contributions to gastronomy. Leite himself is another one of Portugal’s great contributions of gastronomy: The publisher of LeitesCulinaria.com, he’s the author of The New Portuguese Table and a repository of culinary knowledge, including how to deal with this oozing, superripe cheese.
When Serra is in season, it’s the local dessert of choice with aged Tawny. But a true Serra and Tawny fix is hard to recreate, so Leite has joined me in search of an alternative. We assembled five cheeses and a dozen age-designated Tawnies to taste what might work.
The Zimbro, in fact, is not as complex as Serra, but it is close to the Real Thing—“assertive, not barnyard, but grassy. The finish is like a silk scarf,” Leite says. Tasting it with an equally silky, firmly structured Graham’s 10-Year-Old, he remarks, “the cheese becomes more strident—you taste more salt. It stands at attention.” The Taylor 30-Year-Old makes for a more luscious match, the texture as smooth as that of the cheese, the flavor lush with what Leite describes as roasted sultanas.
Serpa, a sheeps’ milk cheese from the Alentejo in southeastern Portugal, is usually served runny. Our round is firmer, a little soft in the middle and nutty. “It fools you,” Leite says. “You taste it. It seems simple, then it starts doing cartwheels halfway back. It starts getting saltier, with acidity and umami notes coming through.” We try this with a series of 10-, 20-, 30- and 40-year-old wines: “The older the wines get, the more they pet the cheese, stroking it.” That is, until the 30-Year-Old Taylor. The 40-year olds are too old for this young cheese: “It’s like a bad husband,” Leite says. “It starts to point out your flaws.”
We end with São Jorge, a cow’s milk cheese from the Azores. It’s the local cheese for Leite’s family when he travels home to the islands. “The older it gets, the more piquant it gets, ranging from mild and sweet at two months to nutty and piquant at four,” he says.
On the other hand, it would be great in the Douro with a meltingly ripe Serra.photos by Bartomeu Amengual