The island of São Jorge from which this cheese gets its name, is located 900 miles from the west coast of Portugal and is part of the Azores archipelago.
Discovered in the 15th century by the Flemish, the islands have long been of strategic importance in terms of oceanic navigation. As a result, Azoreans developed a brisk trade with passing merchant ships, the crews of which sought food for their long voyages.
Situated in the middle of the Atlantic Gulf Stream, the Azores has a mild, damp climate and, due to its volcanic geology, a richly fertile soil that supports abundant vegetation. All these factors contribute towards favorable conditions for dairying - the island is home to 20,000 dairy cows – and cheesemaking.
Cheesemaking on the island dates back to when settlers moved there from the Netherlands and various other regions on the mainland, bringing with them both livestock and cheesemaking knowledge. The Azores have traditionally been home to a variety of cheeses. These range from fresher styles, designed to be eaten within a few days of production, to more robust, aged cheeses able to withstand the rigors of transportation - and consequently often sold to ships’ crews to sustain them for many months at sea.
Made from raw cow’s milk, São Jorge cheese falls into this second category. It is the largest of the Portuguese cheeses weighing between 8kg (16 lb) to 12kg (26lb) and is aged for between three and seven months before release.
To make the cheese, cows are milked twice a day and the evening milk gets delivered to the cheese plant about 8:30pm with cheesemaking commencing right away, continuing through the night from about 9 pm to 4 am. Then, after morning milking another round of cheese is made.
A cooked curd pressed cheese, São Jorge is made by three dairies on the island although just one produces cheese that has been awarded DOP (name protected) status. The DOP status is awarded to cheeses matured for a minimum of 90 days although usually wheels of São Jorge are released at three, four and seven months.
As a side note, São Jorge is so beloved that many Portuguese and Azorean immigrant cheesemakers in the U.S. make their own version as a tribute to their homeland. The most well-known of these are fifth-generation cheesemakers from São Jorge, Joe and Mary Matos, of California’s Matos Cheese Factory near Santa Rosa, an hour north of San Francisco.