Positioned on a hilltop and enclosed by an ancient medieval wall, Serpa’s old historical center can be spotted from a distance. The dominant white of the buildings is only interrupted by the splashes of gray, yellow and blue framing the walls and windows. Cobblestone streets run through the village, where the oldest houses feature whitewashed earth walls. The unique landscape surrounding Serpa can be recognized by its gentle, low lying hills, pastures, cork oaks, ancient olive trees and grazing sheep, cows and pigs. This landscape is known as montado the equivalent of the Spanish dehesa (celebrated for its black pigs and valuable jamon ibérico). The region is situated in southernmost Alentejo, right on the border with Estremadura.
This is also a historical area for the production of Serpa queijo, a raw sheep’s milk cheese made with cardoon rennet. In Portugal and Spain the use of vegetable rennet, in contrast with other Mediterranean countries, is still common. Cardoons are harvested towards the end of spring and used from October onwards. The petals are dried in the shade then blended in a food processor (the modern substituate for the mortar and pestle that were once used) and placed in water for a day. The resulting filtered liquid is used as rennet. Serpa is made solely from sheep’s milk, predominantly from the Lacaune, a French breed that has replaced the local Merino because it is more productive and easier to manage (the former can be milked by a machine) and can be raised in free-range conditions.Milking is done twice a day. The milk is warmed up to approximately 30-33°C and poured through a cloth filled with sea salt. This avoids the need for any further salting of the curd or the formed cheeses, unlike other sheep cheeses. After adding the rennet, producers wait 40 minutes to an hour and a half, depending on their method. The curd is then broken into pieces the size of rice grains, then drained and set into varied forms. The cheese weighs from 200 grams to two-and-a-half kilos and range in height from 3 to 8 cm, with a diameter between 10 and 30 cm.Finally, the forms are wrapped carefully in thin gauze that covers the entire height of the cheese, keeping the form in place and precluding the formation of cracks in the crust.