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Roncal cheese is exceptionally popular not only in Spain, its country of origin, but in many regions in the world. The history of this cheese goes back many centuries, if not quite as far back as the Normans. The traditional hand crafted methods of making Roncal are jealously guarded family secrets, unwritten and handed down through verbal communications from one generation to the next. Luckily, one needn't know exactly how it's made to appreciate it immensely.
While we might not know the recipe, we can tell you other interesting facts about this cheese. It comes from a region in the very north of Spain, in the province of Navarre, along Spain’s border with France. Not surprisingly, the name of the area where it is produced is the Roncal Valley. It’s a rural farming community whose inhabitants, according to local laws, are all equally entitled to use any of the pastures of this valley for any livestock of their choice. The laws reflect the fact that the Roncalese are shepherds by tradition. In the Middle Ages—specifically in 882 A.D., King Sancho García bestowed grazing rights to the inhabitants of the valley as a way of thanking them for great courage shown in a battle against the Saracens.
With such a long history of shepherding in this region, it is no surprise that a governing body has long been responsible for managing elements of the practice. The Valley's Municipal government mandates that sheepherders follow strict time-tables for seasonal grazing. Roncalese farmers move their flocks of Rasa-Aragonesa and Lacha sheep each year, from the winter pastures in La Bardenas Reales in southern Navarre, to the summer pastures higher up in the valley. In this way, milk can be obtained nearly year round, and cheese production continues unabated as it has for centuries. The fact that Roncal has been made for nearly 3,000 years is awesome when you think about it.
Some of the registered sheep herds now producing the milk date back to the thirteenth century! In 1981, it became the first the first Spanish cheese to be granted name protection.
Roncal has a rich olive-like flavor with nut influences. If you like Manchego, a Spanish cheese more readily available in the States, you will likely appreciate the slightly different Roncal. It is traditionally enjoyed with Navarra red wines from the same region.
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