Cardoona Cheese Info

A New Hybred Cheese

This is a unique cheese made with a coagulant made from the floral parts (stamens) of the wild growing thistle called Cardoon(Cynara cardunculus). This ancient style of rennet has been commonly used in Spain and Portugal for centuries but primarily for ewes milk or a mix of ewe and goat. those big thorns on the Cardoon flower below, mother nature’s defenses at work.

The cheese shown here is ripe and ready to enjoy in only 6 weeks. On a board with other great cheese from my cellar it's the first to disappear.

Unlike the traditional coagulant that needed to be made direct from the dried flower parts each time the cheese was made, our new ‘Thistle Rennet’ is a stabilized product that will last many months.

In the past when using it with cows milk, the cheese would quickly become bitter (but not with ewes milk) due to the way that the enzymes would act on the proteins of the different milks.

When working in Spain a few years ago I was so impressed with the character of their local ewes milk cheese made with the rennet from the Cardoon flowers. They had a softness and freshness unlike any other cheese as well as a very unique texture and flavor. The cheese is so well reduced in its short aging period that the primary way to eat it is to remove the top and spoon out the beautiful viscous paste onto a piece of bread.

Torta del Casar was one of the primary cheese I tasted in Spain and before that I had worked with the Spanish Cheese Master, Enric Canut from Barcelona a few years back in making this ewes milk cheese.

We have now acquired this new thistle rennet made from the Cardoon Flowers (now available on our website) and I have been working at changing processes enough to work with cows milk and avoid the bitterness for over two years now. It really is a matter of understanding this ancient but updated enzyme and how it works with the proteins of different milks AND doing a lot of trials.

My targets to work from were:

  • The Torta del Casar (or similar Torta La Serena) made with ewes milk
  • My favorite from the Alps, Reblochon My goal was to see what I could do about the bitter flavor. This was not an easy make with lots of trials but eventually I managed to get rid of the bitter flavor and that is the cheese I show you here

What is Cardoona Cheese

This is a Hybrid cheese. I love to take what I learn from my cheese research travels and work with mixing the character of many concepts that make them so great. Sometimes I am driven to mix the concepts from two or more cheeses into one fantastic cheese.

This cheese was inspired by a visit to The Spanish National Cheese Festival in Trujillo Spain. Almost all of the regional cheesemakers had a cheese in this style using the rennet made from Cardoon flowers. To say the least I was very impressed with the flavor and texture as well as the short ripening of this cheese.

When I returned from that trip to Spain I felt that I just had to explore the possibilities of working with this rennet but with cows milk, even though every one I talked to said it was a big problem with bitterness. The strong cutting activity of the enzymes creates five bitter peptides from cow’s milk proteins that are not formed from the proteins in ewe’s milk. 

In making this cheese my goal was combining the character of these two very different cheeses:

  1. A wheel of Torta del Casar is about .5-2 inches tall. The rind becomes firm but the ripened cheese is so soft that it is usually wrapped with a strip of cloth to keep its shape, much as the spruce bark bound cheeses of France and Switzerland. When ripe it will be molten inside and the best way to serve is to slice off the top and scoop out the interior with a spoon onto a piece of bread.
  2. Reblochon is a small washed rind cheese from the Savoie area of France and again a very soft cheese, ripening from surface to center. The ripened cheese tends to be very creamy and tends to belly out from the rind when cut and held at the table.

So an inquiring mind needed to know if it was possible to avoid the bitterness and still make a great cheese. This hybrid was a big success and I will definitely be doing more using this thistle rennet.

I will be writing more on how I do this research taking a cheese from a rough idea to the final cheese in a series of short blog articles I plan to write for the newsletter in the not too distant future

The History of the Cardoon Rennet

In the western part of Spain (Extremadura) where I was working, the weather is hot and vegetation is sparse, understandably not much grows there. Traditionally the land is set aside for the famous black pigs in the south and the sheep and goat herds further north.
Traditionally within this region there were large tracts of land set aside for the movement of the sheep to higher and cooler pastures during the summer. These were essentially Pastoral Highways set aside for the grazing and movement of these herds. They still exist today as the ‘Dehesa’ or Pastoral Highways much as they did centuries ago. You can still see these on detailed maps of western Spain.

These arid and open lands were poor for agriculture but provided enough dryland grass for the sheep. These same pastures also provided a good home for the Cardoon Thistle (Cynara cardunculus) to grow well. Since the same pastures were shared by both the sheep and the Cardoona, you may wonder why they survived … just look at those thorns on the picture of the Cardoon pictured here here.

The primary economy was based on the herds but these were not rich people for the most part and to kill a young lamb for rennet was not considered sensible since the herds were mostly small.
At some point in the past, someone realized that a tea like infusion made from the stamens of the Cardoon flower could be used to coagulate the milk of the ewe and goat, therefore avoiding the loss of the young lamb.

tThis was specific to ewes milk cheese and some goat milk cheese but when used with cows milk it created a bitter flavor due to the way the thistle rennet worked with the cows milk proteins (quite different from ewes milk ).

To this day the Torta del Casar is one of the most sought after cheeses in Spain. You may ask why we don’t see it more often in our stores here? Well largely because it is a tough cheese to keep from over-ripening during the shipping and retail time. When its ripe it needs to be consumed. If the cheese does appear in shops here it is rarely in the the fully ripened state.