But local producers there are furious with Mexico which they accuse of “crude plagiarism” of their cheese, an issue so touchy it has become a point of discord in drawn-out talks for a new trade deal between the EU and the Latin American country.
“We have to defend our Manchego tooth and nail,” says Francisco Tejado, walking through the factory of Spain's biggest cheese producer, Garcia Baquero, in the small town of Alcazar de San Juan, some 150 kilometres south of Madrid.
Tejado, in charge of the ripening stage of the cheese-making process, says he comes to the plant every day to “watch, touch, pamper these cheeses, these living foods” that are maturing in air-conditioned rooms.
Two different cheeses
Manchego is an EU Protected Designation of Origin (AOC) product, which is respected within the bloc but not always further afield. And in Mexico, in particular, manufacturers have used the names of several “European cheeses, including Manchego, to reap profit from crude plagiarism”, complains Santiago Altares, head of the group that gives out AOC labels to Manchego producers. The original and the copy, he stresses, are completely different.
“The Mexican Manchego is made from cow's milk within seven days, and the authentic Manchego with the milk of ewes of 'Manchega' race, is ripened for at least a month.”
Such is the controversy over the matter that it has been one of the issues in talks aimed at sealing a new version of an 18-year-old trade deal between the EU and Mexico. The Europeans want exclusive right to the “Manchego” name, along with other products.
But that is a problem for cheese producers in Latin America's second-largest economy, where Mexican Manchego represents nearly 15 percent of total cheese sales.
So the National Chamber of Dairy Industries in Mexico has said it will continue using Manchego as a name, which it says is “generic”.
An employee of Garcia Baquero cheese manufacturer works at the production line of the company's factory in Alcazar de San Juan. Photo: Benjamin Cremel / AFP
Under the portrait of his late father Hersilio who ventured into producing Manchego in 1962, the head of Garcia Baquero tries to be conciliatory, saying the conflict “is one of the small elements of friction that mark the globalisation process”.
“But for us, this protection of Manchego as an AOC product is of utmost importance in a semi-arid, austere, under populated region,” says Miguel Angel Garcia Baquero. “We can't lose the little we have.”
The birthplace of Spain's celebrated film director Pedro Almodovar, La Mancha is known first and foremost for being the scene of the adventures of Don Quixote, the delusional wanna-be knight who stars in Miguel de Cervantes' 1605 novel, in which he eats a lot of cheese. The Manchego AOC label even includes the silhouette of the wandering knight.
More than 700 Spanish farmers and 65 producers depend on the cheese for their livelihood. Every year, more than 15,000 tonnes of Manchego are produced — 60 percent of which is exported.
But “when the $7 Mexican cheese and Spain's $14 Manchego hit the American market, the consumer buys the cheapest”, says Altares, denouncing “unfair competition”.
Export to Turkmenistan
In the town of La Solana, round cheese blocs weighing one, two or three kilos bathe in vats of salt water belonging to the La Caseta family business.
“Our Manchego is 'artisanal' because it is made from unpasteurised milk” in machines, says the owner, Paqui Diaz Pintado Borja, 55.
With its 10 employees, La Caseta is a small structure that exports its cheese to Germany, Britain and even Turkmenistan. In the afternoon, seven workers are busy milking the 1,500 “Manchega” ewes of their farm.
“They have less wool than the others, no horns, but provide a better quality milk, rich in protein,” says one of Paqui's sons, Antonio Araque.
In the name of all such producers, Altares wants a ban on using the name Manchego in Mexico.
“But it's going to be complicated because there are many interests at play in give-and-take negotiations” between the EU and Mexico, he says.
By AFP's Laurence Boutreux