In the latest edition of the World Cheese Awards, hosted by the UK’s Guild of Fine Food, Portugal was honored with 3 gold medals. The highlighted cheeses were the very celebrated Serra da Estrela, a 7 month cured DPO São Jorge, and the lesser known buttery sheep cheese by the brand Malpica do Tejo.
There is no doubt that cheese is one of the pillars of Portuguese gastronomy. Across our fairly small country, you find regional varieties that make very good use of dairy milk, as well as goat, sheep, or a combination of the latter two.
In Portugal, cheese is eaten as an appetizer (particularly fresh cottage style cheese - as talked about below), in sandwiches fresh or grilled, as part of cheese and charcuterie boards, and it is also one of the key ingredients in some of Portugal’s most contemporary recipes.
Our country has different terroirs where animals can graze that, allied with different recipes and methods of curing, result in distinct varieties of cheese. If you don’t know where to start, we share with you the best Portuguese cheeses you must try on your next trip to Lisbon:
São Jorge & queijo da Ilha | São Jorge and island cheese
We start by highlighting the archipelago of the Azores, famed for their incredibly high quality dairy products. For the most part, these nine islands have verdant fields where cows graze freely, producing excellent milk. Amongst the variety of cheeses produced in the Azores, perhaps the most famous one is São Jorge, called after the island where it’s produced. If you ever visit this tiny island, chances are you’ll meet a local who will joke with you and tell you that they have more cows than people on the island. It's true: São Jorge has less than 10,000 inhabitants and at least twice as many cows. São Jorge cheese is a semi-hard raw dairy cheese which has a denomination of protected origin (a label known in Portuguese as DOP). It can be cured between 3 and 36 months, and one of its main characteristics is that it becomes slightly spicy on the palate, something which naturally intensifies as the aging process is prolonged.
The cheese is shaped into big wheels, similar to Parmigiano Reggiano but slightly smaller, and it is usually marketed cut into big wedges.
This style of cheese has been produced in São Jorge since the 16th century and it is one of the main drivers of the local economy. It is also highly regularized and there is a committee which samples all batches of cheese and labels them as worthy of the DPO label or not. Those cheeses that did not pass the test with full marks hit the market under the name queijo da ilha, that is, island cheese. If you like sharp semi-cured to cured cheeses, queijo de São Jorge is a must try in Portugal!
Queijo da Serra | Serra da Estrela cheese
The cheese from the mountains of Serra da Estrela is, quite probably, Portugal’s most famous cheese. Serra da Estrela is mainland Portugal’s highest peak, just above 2000 meters of altitude, and the mountains surrounding it are the home of sheep of the breed Bordaleira. As this is a cheese with protected denomination of origin, not only can it be produced in this region alon, it shall only be made with the milk of this specific breed of sheep. The raw milk is curdled with thistle flower instead of rennet, thus making queijo da Serra a vegetarian cheese. Serra da Estrela cheese is produced artisanally and cured for at least 30 days. The most appreciated varieties are consumed while the cheese is still very buttery (in Portuguese, amanteigado). So much so that you wouldn’t be able to cut it into slices. Instead, the customary way of digging into Serra da Estrela cheese is to cut a lid on top of the cheese wheel, remove it, and scoop out of the content with a spoon or knife, in order to spread this rich, strong, luscious cheese into bread. Serra da Estrela cheese has a very rich texture, and a fairly salty and strong taste. Hands down, one of the star cheeses of Portugal!
Queijo de Azeitão | Azeitão cheese
Azeitão cheese should not be mistaken with cheese from Serra da Estrela, even though these two products have a lot in common. They are both strong buttery cheeses made with raw sheep milk, and their production and method of curing follow similar patterns. Queijo de Azeitão has a very curious history: in the early 1800s, a man from Beira Baixa, the region where Serra da Estrela cheese is produced, moved to the area of Azeitão. Missing his staple cheese from back home, he decided to reproduce it locally, even having brought over sheep of the same breed. Interestingly, even though he tried to copy the style of Serra da Estrela cheese to satisfy his home sickness, we can taste how both these cheeses are different, and that is explained by the terroir where the animals graze. Even though, initially, Azeitão cheese had a similar appearance as queijo da Serra, the producers soon ditched the wheels between 1Kg and 1.5Kgs in favor of smaller cheeses, around 300g, which are the variety you can now find in Portuguese shops. If you travel to Lisbon and would like to visit the birthplace of queijo de Azeitão, you can easily travel to the southbank of the Tagus river and enjoy a delicious day trip in the area near this town, and also nearby Palmela and Setúbal, famous for their wines and seafood respectively.
Queijo de Cabra Transmontano | goat cheese from Trás-os-Montes
This goat cheese from the northern interior mountain of Trás-os-Montes is yet another example of Portuguese cheese with denomination of protected origin status. It can only be prepared with raw goat milk from the Serrana breed, resulting in a rather intensely flavored cheese of fairly hard consistency. The production of queijo de cabra Transmontano is still artisanal, very similar to its very beginnings. Even though being a goat cheese it has a strong flavor, it is an easy going one, even for people who aren’t usually fond of goat cheese. Just like it happens in Trás-os-Montes, we recommend trying queijo de cabra Transmontano with dark rye bread - a combo that tastes like the region and, simply put, tastes absolutely delicious! If you like the combination of sweet and salty, just like Serra da Estrela or Azeitão cheeses above, this one also goes beautifully with jams and fruit compotes, such as pumpkin or fig.
Queijo de Nisa | Nisa cheese
Nisa cheese is produced from sheep milk, in this case of the regional breed Merina Branca, from the same area where the town of Nisa is located. One of the particularities of most Portuguese cheeses, especially sheep and goat cheeses, is that they are made from raw milk. Not pasteurizing the milk beforehand results in keeping certain aspects of the flavor profile alive, and also gives room for the taste to develop in a particular way. Just like Serra da Estrela cheese, the milk for Nisa cheese is also curdled with cardoon flowers. The methods of production are artisanal but standardized, which means you will only find two sizes of Nisa cheese in the market: small wheels between 200 to 400 g, and big ones around 800 to 1300 g. Nisa cheese is cured between 30 to 40 days, until it has a semi-hard consistency and white-yellowish color. It is very aromatic and slightly acidic.
Queijo de Serpa | Serpa cheese
Serpa is a cured cheese from the place by the same name in the Alentejo region, home of several of Portugal’s most famed food products, including this DPO cheese. It is also produced from sheep milk curdled with cardoon flowers. For uttermost freshness, and once the milk used for the cheesemaking is raw, producers usually make cheese twice a day, as soon as possible after they have milked the animals. Serpa cheese is cured for about 30 days and salted twice during the process. When you see a wheel of Serpa cheese full, you’ll notice that it is wrapped in a protective cloth. There’s lots of significance about this cloth and, because of religious beliefs and superstition, many producers not only fold this cloth 40 times, they also score the cheese for salting in 4 simple movements, just like a cross. Serpa cheese came about in the early 1900s, more or less following the recipe of Serra da Estrela cheese but, with the distinct regional soil and weather characteristics, the truth is that it resulted in a product with personality of its own.
Queijo do Pico | Pico cheese
Pico is one of the neighboring islands of São Jorge, in the Azores. Queijo do Pico may not be as celebrated as queijo da ilha, and it is certainly not as well-known even amongst Portuguese people, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t deserve to be highlighted. The island where mount Pico, Portugal’s highest mountain, is located, is mostly covered in black volcanic stones. In between the darkness, in one of the higher altitude sides of the island, there are pastures where cows feed from, producing some of the freshest and purest milk our country can have access to. This is the milk used for the making of queijo do Pico, which is fairly fatty, semi-soft, and very easy going on the palate. If you are particularly interested in discovering this and other Azores cheeses while in Lisbon, we’d recommend visiting Azores specialty groceries such as Mercearia dos Açores (Rua Viriato 14C).
Queijo Terrincho | Terrincho cheese
If you are into sheep milk cheese, you would know by now that there are high chances you’ll be happy here in Portugal! Queijo Terrincho is another of Portugal’s best sheep cheeses, and this one is made from milk of Churra da Terra Quente breed, which is sometimes popularly referred to as Terrincho, thus explaining the name of this cheese. This is a cured cheese which can be semi-hard or hard, depending on the time of maturation. Its whitish color will also turn more yellow as the aging process is prolonged. Regular queijo Terrincho is usually cured for about 30 days. If you like strong, intense cheeses, we recommend trying Terrincho velho (that is, old Terrincho), aged for 90 days. The flavor of Terrincho cheese is mild, considering it’s a sheep cheese, but it becomes more pronounced and easier to recognize when you taste a Terrincho velho.
Queijo Rabaçal | Rabaçal cheese
The town of Rabaçal, near Coimbra in the center of Portugal, is the birthplace of this cheese by the same name. Rabaçal is produced from a mix of goat and sheep milk, what we refer to in Portuguese as mistura, curdled using animal rennet. As you can see in the photo, it is one of the few Portuguese cheeses that somehow looks like a cartoon depiction of a cheese, because it is shaped as a wheel and features a fair number of holes. Not only do its looks set it apart from other Portuguese specialities, Rabaçal also tastes quite particular. The flavor has a direct correlation with what the animals producing the milk for it eat. In the region, there is a herb which is somehow akin to wild thyme, known in Portuguese as erva Santa Maria, which the animals tend to munch on, and which gives a rather particular taste to the milk and, therefore, to the cheese. Once again, this proves how the terroir has a major impact on the flavor profile of a given product.
Queijo de Évora | Évora cheese
Évora cheese is a classic from the Alentejo and, if you are eating out in the region and order a cheese board, or simply are suggested some appetizers before your meal, chances are you’ll come across it without having to dig much. We’re talking about a sheep cheese, produced from raw milk of the Merina Branca breed, which is salty and slightly spicy. The saltiness is transferred into the cheese paste by filtering the milk with previously salted cheese cloths. Queijo de Évora can be eaten plain or preserved in olive oil, offering an even richer experience. It is customarily cured between 30 and 90 days, resulting in a semi-hard consistency. Unlike other Portuguese cheeses which are very standardized when it comes to size and presentation, Évora cheese is marketed in several shapes and sizes.
Queijo de Castelo Branco | Castelo Branco cheese
Castelo Branco cheese, with PDO status, falls under the umbrella of Queijos da Beira Baixa DOP, being that Beira Baixa is a central interior region of Portugal, and Castelo Branco is a city within this region. If you are curious, there are two other cheeses which share the same label, and they are queijo Amarelo da Beira Baixa DOP (a cured cheese made with either sheep milk, or a mix of sheep and goat milks), and queijo Picante da Beira Baixa DOP (a slightly spicy cured cheese made with a mix of milks too). Queijo de Caselo Branco stands out as one of the best cheeses in Portugal. It is prepared with raw sheep milk, and it can be cured until it either has semi-soft or semi-hard consistency. Its appearance is slightly yellow and it can be cured between 45 days to 90 days. The oldest version is called queijo de Castelo Branco velho. Catelo Branco cheese started being produced around 1870 and, back then, the city dwellers of Lisbon used to be its main consumers. Today, thankfully, this delightful cheese is available all over the country!
Queijo fresco & requeijão | fresh cheese and cottage cheese
Queijo fresco and requeijão are two distinct products, but we group them here as they do share similarities and, even though they are not associated with any specific region of Portugal, they are nonetheless very relevant as part of the local diet. Queijo fresco (which literally translates as fresh cheese) is precisely what the name anticipates: a non cured cheese, usually prepared from pasteurized dairy milk. Queijo fresco is the direct product of what happens when you heat up milk and curdle it. It is a very popular appetizer in Portugal and, oftentimes, restaurants will bring it to your table even without you asking (usually inside its protective plastic mold, just as seen in the picture here) - kindly note that this is not complimentary, but a suggestion; if you do not eat it, the staff will take it back and you will certainly not have to pay for it). The usual way of eating queijo fresco is to slice with your knife and fork on the plate and sprinkle it with salt and black pepper to taste. This is also a very popular cheese to eat in sandwiches or atop bread, particularly for folks avoiding other fattier cheeses with higher caloric content. It also works very well as a refreshing salad topping.
Requeijão, on the other hand, is cottage cheese, even though it doesn’t have the grainy consistency some people may associate with certain varieties of cottage cheese. It is less smooth than queijo fresco though. If we had to draw parallelisms with other international cheeses, we could say that Requeijão is similar to Italian ricotta. Unlike queijo fresco, requeijão is a by-product of cheese making, obtained from the whey left over from the curd. Requeijão can be made with cow milk, but sheep milk requeijão (requeijão de ovelha) is also very popular and appreciated and there are a lot of sheep cheeses across Portugal and, therefore, it would only be natural that requeijão would also be made while producing these. Requeijão can be eaten on its own, but it is more popularly consumed as part of recipes, dessert making, or as a quick dessert mixing some of this cheese with fruit compotes and, in some cases, nuts.
Where to buy Portuguese regional cheeses in Lisbon
Luckily for us, Lisbon today has a pretty good selection of shops specializing in cheese. The truth is that, the most common Portugueses cheeses are easy to find in local supermarkets, so these specialty stores often end up focusing in foreign cheeses, such as those imported from France, Italy and more.
We would like to suggest some shops where you can find regional cheeses of Portugal. These are stores which carefully curate the products they sell, keeping a close relationship with the producers. This translates in knowing their products well, and therefore being able to advise customers on the particularities of a given cheese they may want to buy, but also offering fairer conditions for the producers. Furthermore these are the kind of cheese stores where you may come across specialities from small producers, particularly from the interior of Portugal, otherwise not present in big chain stores.
This cheese and charcuterie store, which initially opened its doors in Rossio but it is now also present inside the hip Time Out Market, has been running for 100 years. If you visited 10 years ago and now, you will see that some of the team members are the same, and this translates not only in familiarity but also know-how. If you don’t know what you’d like to take from Portugal cheese wise, come here and feel free to ask questions. This is the kind of place where they’ll be able to guide you on what you should sample and buy and, good luck, because their highly curated selection of Portuguese cheese (and charcuterie!) is going to be very difficult to resist!
📍Main store in Rossio: Rua Dom Antão De Almada 1 C/D, 1100-197 Lisbon
📍Counter inside Lisbon’s Time Out Market: Av. 24 de Julho 49, 1200-479 Lisbon
Unlike Manteigaria Silva above, Queijaria doesn’t only stock national products, but their selection of Portuguese cheeses is brilliant nonetheless. The name of this shop translates as “cheese store”, so you know that they deal with only one type of item, but they sure know what they’re doing. All of the cheeses sold at Queijaria are handmade and, founded back in 2014, it was the first store of its kind in all of Portugal!
📍Rua do Monte Olivete 40, 1200-280 Lisbon
Comida Indeoendente (which translates as “independent food”) is all about working with small farmers and producers from across Portugal, bringing to the city specialities which we may have never come across without leaving the city. We love that they do this, not only because their extensive field work results in us city folks being able to have access to such wonders from our small but gastronomically rich country, it also means that, now, “undiscovered” producers have a chance to market their wonderful stuff much better. Visit Comida Independente at their regular store or during their Saturday morning open-air market, which takes place in Praça de São Paulo, featuring a collection of rotative producers.
📍Rua Cais do Tojo 28, 1200-649 Lisbon
Mercearia Poço dos Negros
Located in the so-called “hipster triangle” of Poço dos Negros, this gourmet grocery store is modern, but that doesn't mean you can’t find some of Portugal’s most traditional food products here, including a good selection of regional cheeses. The good thing about coming to Mercearia Poço dos Negros to get your Portuguese cheese is that, here, you can grab everything else you may need to organize a proper cheese party: wine, spirits, nuts and dried fruits, charcuterie and even some sweet confections.
📍Rua do Poço dos Negros 97 99, 1200-336 Lisbon
Sabores da Terra
Sabores da Terra is a gourmet deli store specialized in cheese, cured meats and wines from small artisanal producers from all over Portugal. If wine & cheese is your thing, at Sabores da Terra (which translates as “flavors from the earth”), you’ll have plenty to choose from, with the Portuguese seal of authenticity and taste!
📍Azinhaga da Torre do Fato 4B, 1600-759 Lisbon
If you are eating out around Lisbon and would like to enquire about the cheeses that may be included in a given cheese platter, or would simply like to order something that best matches your taste, here are a few key words in Portuguese which may make it easier for you to navigate the world of Portuguese cheeses:
Amanteigado = buttery (usually with spreadable consistency, similar to Serra da Estrela or Azeitão cheeses)
Curado = cured
De vaca = cow
De ovelha = sheep
De cabra = goat
Mistura = mixed (usually including both sheep and goat milk)
If you are a lover of life’s simple pleasures, such as wine & cheese, we have a feeling you will feel very happy with us here in Portugal! Plan your trip now and feel free to hit us up on Instagram for further tips on Lisbon and all things Portuguese food! #cookinglisbon