Queijo fresco (literally "fresh cheese") is a staple in the Portuguese diet. "It's what pasta is to the Italians," according to Anne DeMelo, general manager of the family-owned Portuguese Cheese Company in Toronto's west end.
Eaten throughout the day with breakfast or as a side dish or snack, you can simply drizzle sliced queijo fresco with olive oil and black pepper, you can spread it on crusty bread with a streak of pimenta moida (a salty, Portuguese pickled pepper condiment), or pair it with fresh fruit and honey.
Following Ms. DeMelo's suggestions, I served it as a sweet brunch option instead of yogurt, I topped it with the spicy pepper spread for a no-fuss appetizer and I cubed it on top of a grilled zucchini salad at dinner. Mainly though, I just kept going back to the fridge to enjoy its sweet, whole-milk goodness straight from the container.
Fresh cheeses are rindless, moist and mild products that provide the perfect vehicle for showcasing other bolder flavours. And like other styles such as chèvre, ricotta and buffalo mozzarella, queijo fresco is unripened and needs to be eaten soon after production.
This silky smooth cheese is pure white and shares a resemblance to ricotta (though ricotta is made from whey). It's like biting into a firmer version of fresh, sweet milk. The texture is custard-like and delicate with a hint of salt on the finish. It is sliceable but sometimes so fragile that you have to be careful it doesn't fall apart during transfer from the cutting board. Its consistency varies (sometimes it's more scoopable), partly because it's hand-made and also depending on the seasonal characteristics of the milk.
The Portuguese Cheese Company also makes a goat-milk version of queijo fresco that is not quite as silky on the palate but has the same bright, sweet flavour. Don't expect a stronger taste – if you weren't told, you'd never guess you were eating a goat-milk product.
Queijo fresco is known as queso fresco in Latin American cultures, but, as Ms. DeMelo explains, the Portuguese variety is a much looser cheese; its soft, moist consistency is something the cheese makers work hard to maintain by disturbing the delicate curd as little as possible during cheese making to prevent excessive moisture release. Once the curd is drained overnight in perforated stainless steel forms, it's packaged and ready for immediate consumption.
The Portuguese Cheese Company makes its queijo fresco under the name St. John's (cow's milk, red label) and Santa Maria (goat's milk, blue label). Both products are rennet-free and vegetarian-friendly. The company sells the cheese in stores within the Portuguese areas in Toronto (including certain locations of Price Chopper, No Frills and Sobeys) and Montreal. Otherwise, ask for queijo fresco in specialty shops within the Portuguese community.
You can use it in your everyday cooking by adding it cubed to pasta just before serving (it will soften from the heat but maintain its shape), or chop it and sprinkle it on top of salads. You may, however, want to drain it slightly before adding it to certain meals as it will release whey if left sitting.
And don't forget the first rule of queijo fresco: no double dipping. Always use a clean spoon or knife. With this type of fresh cheese, any new bacteria introduced will multiply quickly, causing the product to sour sooner than it should (the shelf life is two weeks). Essentially, it's best to eat the whole container in one sitting. That's not hard to do.
Sue Riedl blogs about cheese and other edibles at cheeseandtoast.com.