Mahón is a Spanish cheese from Minorca, one of the Balearic Islands in the Mediterranean. Although widely exported, many people aren't familiar with Mahón (pronounced mah-OWN), a white cow's milk cheese that is available both young and aged. The cheese's maturity will affect its flavor, which can range from mild to intense, as well as its texture, which runs from soft to hard. Both raw and pasteurized versions are sold, although the pasteurized tends to be less flavorful.
- Source: Cow's milk
- Origin: Spain
- Aged: Ranges from days to more than a year
What Is Mahón Cheese?
Mahón is a crumbly, dense cheese that is sold at different stages of the aging process, from two months to over a year. Young Mahón (aged less than four months) is semi-firm and mild. The cheese can be buttery, tangy, and salty. Wheels of Mahón that have been aged four months or more take on a saltier, herbal, more complex flavor and a noticeably tangy finish. Wheels that are aged for a year or more have a texture similar to Parmesan and an intense caramelized, salty flavor.
Mahón is rectangular or square with rounded edges and has a natural rind. Young wheels of Mahón (and, usually, pasteurized versions) have rinds that are an eye-catching orange color. As the cheese ages, the color of the rind fades to gold, brown, or rust-colored. The color of the paste (the interior of the cheese) also changes from white to yellow as it matures.
Mahón vs. Manchego
Although these two Spanish cheeses are the country's most popular, they are very different from each other, starting with the type of milk used to make them; while Mahón is made from cow's milk, Manchego uses sheep's milk. They also have distinctive flavors and textures: Mahón is piquant and buttery, with a nutty taste, and Manchango is mild, dry, with a somewhat gamey finish.
How Mahón Is Made
Cheese making on the island of Menorca has been happening for centuries, a tradition handed down generation to generation. Cheese making is the second leading industry, and Mahón received denominación de origen in 1985.
Mahón is made with either pasteurized or unpasteurized cow's milk. The curd is wrapped with a cotton cloth, called a fogasser, tied with a string (lligam), and pressed to remove the whey. The cloth wrapping creates a pillow shape, while the version made with pasteurized milk uses special molds that give the cheese its rectangular shape. The cheese goes into a brine, removed to dry out, and stored in cheese caves to age. During maturation, the cheese is rubbed with a blend of oil, butter, and paprika, giving Mahón its signature reddish orange rind.
Types of Mahón
Mahón is classified by age, creating three categories: tierno, semi-curado, and Mahón curado. The younger the cheese, the lighter the color of the paste (the cheese's flesh); as it ages, the hue darkens, the texture becomes firmer and drier, and the taste intensifies.
Tierno has been aged the least, maturing for just 21 to 60 days, and is pale in color with a soft, elastic texture. The mild flavor has hints of acidity, a buttery taste, and is slightly salty. This type of Mahón is ideal for making creamy cheese sauces.
When aged between two and five months, the cheese is considered semi-curado. Although there are similarities to tierno, its golden hue and slightly piquant flavor are what distinguish its maturity, along with some buttery and nutty notes. When cut, the cheese will reveal several irregular holes. This type of Mahón is favored for use in desserts because of its mix of sweet and savory.
The Mahón with the most complex character is Mahón curado, which has been aged for more than five months. The cheese turns an orange-brown and becomes crumbly and hard, with the older versions having a bit of crunch due to the lactose crystals. There are threads of smoke, wood, caramel, nuts, spice, and even leather. This is best enjoyed cut into slices and served with fruit and nuts.
It can be challenging to find a suitable substitute for Mahón, especially since it ranges in flavor and texture depending on its maturity. The closest comparison may be to Gouda, although it will be missing Mahón's unique, salty taste. If you are set on a Spanish cheese, turn toward a Manchego.
Mahón is a versatile cheese and can be added to cooked dishes as well as eaten as is. A traditional way of eating this cheese is simply sliced thin and drizzled with extra-virgin olive oil. It is also often grated over pasta, rice, and vegetable dishes.
Because Mahón is a pressed cheese, it needs to be protected from drying out. Wrap the cheese in plastic wrap or cover with a damp cloth and store it in the coldest part of the refrigerator. If the cheese shows signs of some mold, the mold can be removed (cut an inch around the spot of mold) and the cheese is safe to use.
A classic way to eat Mahón is drizzled with extra-virgin olive oil and sprinkled with black pepper and tarragon. Young Mahón often pairs well with Spanish chorizo and beer, as well as sherry, dried fruit, and nuts, and aged Mahón matches nicely with red wines like Spanish tempranillo and Rioja.
- Ham, Cheese, and Chorizo Appetizer
- Cheese Platter
- Cacio e Pepe (swap in Mahón for Pecorino Romano)
Can You Eat the Rind?
The rind of Mahón is made naturally, which means it develops from the air drying the outside of the cheese as it is aging. Over time, a crust forms on the cheese. With Mahón, this crust is rubbed with a mixture of oil, butter, and paprika, which not only imparts a particular hue but also gives the rind a delicious flavor—similar to fruity olive oil—making it enjoyable to eat.