In one corner, strong-tasting cured manchego sheep’s cheese from central Spain; in the other, a softer cow’s milk product from Mexico, also called manchego, but used to stuff quesadillas, rather than savoured with a glass of Rioja.
Spanish cheesemakers’ demands that this “chalk and cheese” row over what constitutes the real thing be remedied by law is holding up progress as the European Union negotiates a new trade deal with Mexico.
The EU wants to guarantee the exclusive labelling of products such as wines and cheeses, including the denomination of origin manchego cheese, produced since Roman times in the La Mancha area of central Spain.
“This cheese has a natural environment in which it is produced. If you make a drink called Scottish whisky, it is because it is distilled in Scotland, and not Wales or anywhere else. It would be absurd for Mexicans to sell Scotch made in Cuernavaca or Monterrey. This is just the same,” Ismael Álvarez de Toledo, president of the Spanish Brotherhood of Manchego Cheese, told The Telegraph.
Mr Álvarez de Toledo added that the key to the argument are sales on the US market, where Mexican producers currently hold a dominant position with a cheese that costs less than half its Spanish Manchego forebear, at only $7 a kilo.
But the Mexican dairy sector argues that consumers can distinguish the two products, even though both are marketed under the same name.
“No one who wants to consume [Spanish] manchego cheese is going to enter a shop and be confused by Mexican manchego. They will go to a gourmet store,” Miguel Ángel García Paredes, president of Mexico’s Canilec dairy industry association, told Spanish newspaper El País.
Canilec says that Mexico’s authorities have reached agreement with EU negotiators on acceptable terms for the continued sale of Mexican brie, camembert, gouda and mozzarella, among other European cheese varieties.
“It’s not piracy. It’s impossible to copy a cheese,” said Mr García Paredes of the Mexican tradition of labelling cheeses ‘Manchego type’ or ‘Parmesan type’.
But Mr Álvarez de Toledo begged to differ.
“If I take a guy from Madrid who is tall and blond that doesn’t mean I can call him a Swedish-type man. ‘Type’ products don’t exist; it’s a way of perpetrating a fraud.”
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"Mexico has to stop this fraud. They’ve been doing it for years and simply ignoring all warnings. It’s the food equivalent of the Asian market for t-shirts and handbags, creating fake branded items that are really from Paris, Rome or Madrid. Manchego is the Rolex of the cheese world, the most imitated and the most abused.”
According to the Denomination of Origin’s rules, Manchego cheese must be made of 100 per cent ewe’s milk from the Manchega sheep breed, have a braided basket weave design on the outside and be produced in the official area spanning part of the Spanish provinces of Ciudad Real, Toledo, Cuenca and Albacete.
There are no rules as to how Mexican manchego is made. It tends to be made with cow’s milk, has a mild flavour, and is often melted on tacos.