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Spanish cheesemakers defend Manchego from Mexican ‘copy’

In central Spain, the arid plains of La Mancha are famous for their windmills and Manchego, a cheese made out of ewe's milk that is one of the best-known representatives of the country's gastronomy.

Spanish cheesemakers defend Manchego from Mexican 'copy'
'Garcia Baquero' cheese manufacturer CEO Miguel Angel Garcia Baquero. Photo: Benjamin Cremel / AFP
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
 
Struggling region
 
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

FOOD & DRINK

These are Spain’s new Michelin-starred restaurants

The new 2023 Michelin Star guide for the best restaurants in Spain and Portugal has awarded new stars to 34 restaurants across Spain. Read on to discover which ones and where they are.

These are Spain's new Michelin-starred restaurants

En España se come bien (People eat well in Spain), you’ll hear many Spaniards proclaim. That’s coming from a country that’s not accustomed to singing its own praises on the global stage. 

Although these higher-than-average gastronomic standards apply to all types of bars and restaurants, when it comes to haute cuisine, Spain continues to be among the top five countries with the most Michelin-starred eateries, together with France, Japan, Italy and Germany.

On Tuesday November 22nd, Michelin revealed its newest restaurant selection of acclaimed Spanish restaurants during an event in the Spanish city of Toledo.

As of November 2022, two restaurants in Spain have been awarded the coveted three Michelin Star distinction.

Three have gone up to the two-star category and 29 restaurants have been given new one-star rankings.

Atrio in Cáceres (Extremadura region in western Spain) and Cocina Hermanos Torres in Barcelona have both earned the top award three-star prize, which is the highest award that can be given, and have joined the 13 other restaurants in Spain at this level.

According to the judges, Atrio won the distinction due to “its elegant and delicate dishes, prepared by chef Toño Pérez, who has shaken up local gastronomic traditions”. His menu focuses on Iberian pork and other products from Extremadura.

While in Barcelona, Cocina Hermanos Torres has been given the top award for “firing the imagination with every bite”. Chefs Sergio and Javier Torres have created “a magical space in which the gastronomic experience consistently seeks out the very best seasonal produce and exceeds foodies’ expectations, turning it into a dining extravaganza,” the judges said.

READ ALSO – REVEALED: Spain’s cheapest Michelin-starred restaurants

Of the 2023 guide, International Director of Michelin Gwendal Poullennec said: “We were delighted to see how younger chefs are taking the lead and embarking on their own journeys, in many cases flying the flag of reinterpreted regional or fusion cuisines”.

“In turn, vegan options are gradually forging ahead on menus, something which was already occurring in other European countries,” he added. 

Below are the Spanish rankings for the 2023 guide, including the three stars awarded to Atrio and Cocina Hermanos Torres. 

Two stars

  • Deessa, Madrid
  • El Rincón de Juan Carlos, Adeje, Tenerife
  • Pepe Vieira, Serpe, Pontevedra

One star

  • Ababol, Albacete
  • Ajonegro, Logroño
  • Aleia, Barcelona
  • AlmaMater, Murcia
  • Alquimia-Laboratorio, Valladolid
  • Ancestral, Illescas
  • Arrea!, Santa Cruz de Campezo
  • Ceibe, Ourense
  • Cobo Evolución, Burgos
  • Código de Barra, Cádiz
  • Come, Barcelona
  • Enigma, Barcelona
  • Etxeko Ibiza, Es Canar, Ibiza
  • Ferpel, Ortiguera
  • Fusión19, Muro, Mallorca
  • Gente Rara, Zaragoza
  • Kaleja, Málaga
  • La Finca, Loja
  • Mont Bar, Barcelona
  • Monte, San Feliz
  • Montia, San Lorenzo de El Escorial
  • Oba, Casas-Ibáñez
  • O’Pazo, Padrón
  • Ravioxo, Madrid
  • San-Hô, Adeje, Tenerife
  • Slow & Low, Barcelona
  • Tabaiba, Las Palmas de Gran Canaria
  • Ugo Chan, Madrid
  • Zuara Sushi, Madrid

The Michelin Guide also handed out special awards to three different chefs.

The Young Chef Award for 2023 went to Almería-born chef Cristóbal Muñoz, who at age 31, heads up the kitchens at Ambivium in Peñafiel, Castilla y León.

The Chef Mentor Award for 2023 was given to a well-known name in the world of Spanish gastronomy – Joan Roca, who together with his brothers turned El Cellar de Can Roca in Girona, Catalonia into one of the best and most famous restaurants in the world.

Finally, the Michelin Service Award for 2023 was presented to Toni Gerez from Castell de Peralada, also in Catalonia. As the restaurant manager and sommelier, he “excels in customer-facing roles, in particular, when presenting his marvellous cheese cart that goes from table to table,” explained the judges.

In total, the 2023 Guide lists 1,401 restaurants throughout Spain, Portugal and Andorra. Out of these, 13 have three Michelin Stars, 41 have two Michelin Stars and 235 were awarded one Michelin Star. 

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