Sao Jorge Cheese Info
São Jorge a cheese from the Azores
My inspiration for this cheese was a recent trip to Ontario Canada, which included a visit to a local Azorian neighborhood food shop that specialized in products from the Azores. Besides the wonderful sausages and traditional bread, they had two large wheels of São Jorge cheese. The cutter asked if we wanted the spicy or mild for our cheese and, of course, se we said spicy.
I have had this cheese in the past but never have I been quite as impressed as I was this time. Before we had gotten too far in tasting this cheese, I was beginning to reverse engineer the making of it and thus began my research for this recipe. Several trials in the cheese lab later and viola.
For this recipe we focus on a cheese that has a lot of history but still remains quite unknown to many due to its remote region of production.
In the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, somewhere between Portugal and America, lies a string of remote volcanic islands. From the days of the early sea travelers, these islands became inhabited to take on the role of a way-station for early sea travelers to replenish ship supplies.
Fresh water, fruit and green vegetables were much needed, but due to the lushness of these islands, dairy in the form of cheese became a key product for the sailors.
This meant large aged cheeses able to survive the sea voyage. Thus evolved the most famous cheese from the Azores, São Jorge, or the cheese of Saint George, the dragon slayer.
The History of Sao Jorge Cheese
Well out into the Atlantic Ocean (about 900 miles) off the coast of Portugal lies a chain of small islands called the Azores. It makes sense that in the early days of trans-Atlantic exploration, small wooden ships discovering the new world stopped here. The Azores naturally became a promising place to replenish fresh water, supplies, etc.
Due to its location, situated in the middle of the Atlantic Gulf Stream, the Azores have a mild, damp climate and, due to its volcanic geology, a richly fertile soil that supports abundant vegetation. All these factors contribute towards favorable conditions for dairying – the island is home to 20,000 dairy cows - and cheese making. The development of Saint George Island (São Jorge) was originally made in the early 15th century by a group of Flemish settlers from the Netherlands, who brought with them both livestock and cheese making knowledge. These folks came to find that the highlands of the island were quite similar to their homeland, where they were experienced in production of meat, milk and dairy products, most notably their cheese. Today, with twice as many cattle as people, and grass for the cows to enjoy at its higher elevations, the island has become renowned for this strong white cheese.
In 1986, a key step in maintaining the high quality of the São Jorge cheese into the future was implemented with the regulation of registration for Protected Designation of Origin (DOP) attributed to this cheese. This regulation now determines where and how the cheese is made and aged.
Similar cheeses are made in other areas of the Azores, but they are simply known as Queijo da Ilha or “Island Cheese.”
About Sao Jorge Cheese
Weighing up to 15lbs, São Jorge is a tangy, semi-hard, raw cows milk cheese made on the island of São Jorge in the Azores, which is located 900 miles from the west coast of Portugal. Because of the importance of this cheese, Sao Jorge is often called 'The Island of Cheese'.
São Jorge is a robust, aged cheeses able to withstand the rigors of transportation, since it was originally sold to ships crews to sustain them for many months at sea. It is made by combining fresh milk from the morning and evening milkings. It has a hard rind with a smooth surface and rich buttery tang. It has a firm texture with small irregular “eyes” or pockets, caused by dryness of curd at molding, and the small amount of pressure applied during the curd pressing process, as well as the local humid aging conditions.
Cows are milked twice a day and the evening milk gets delivered to the cheese plant about 8:30pm, with cheese making commencing right away and continuing through the night from about 9 pm to 4 am. Then, after morning milking another round of cheese is made.
The cheese is traditionally made using the whey from a previous batch as the culture. This cheese has a definite "bite" that many believe to be due to the whey/culture used. Some have tried to use modern cultures but the results are just not felt to be quite the same.
Variations in Style
Mild or Spicy? This cheese has a wonderful progression of changes during the aging process. As it ages, some complex changes take place in the cheese causing it to transform from a sweet mild cheese to tangy and peppery over time. It is usually aged from 3-9 months and sometimes even longer.
In the USA, we have several small operations making similar cheeses to this but probably the most well know is the fifth-generation cheese makers from São Jorge, Joe and Mary Matos, of California’s Matos Cheese Factory near Santa Rosa. Theirs is a very small family operation and the cheese can be bought direct at the farm. As its reputation has spread, many cheese shops now carry these wonderful cheeses. This is a very rustic and traditional production. I have never visited them but have heard that they did (and maybe still do) use cement blocks for cheese pressing. You just have to love that rustic aspect.