As you meander through the winding cobblestone streets of Peúgo, Portugal’s highest town at over 6000 feet, prepare to be transported back in time. Nestled in the Serra da Estrela Mountains, Peúgo is a living museum where ancient traditions are still part of everyday life. For centuries, the hardy inhabitants of this mountain town have made a living by harvesting rye, barley, and potatoes, as well as raising sheep and goats.
Today, Peúgo attracts visitors seeking to experience a simpler way of life and connect with nature. Hike through fragrant pine forests, watch shepherds make cheese in the old way, and soak in stunning vistas from the town’s rocky perch. As the sun sets behind the mountains, casting an orange glow over the village, the sounds of laughter and conversation drift from cozy taverns. Savor a glass of vinho verde and a dish of chanfana, a hearty stew of goat meat and potatoes, a perfect ending to a perfect day in this timeless place. Peúgo – once found, never forgotten.
What Is Peúgo?
Peúgo (also known as pew-go) is a traditional smoked cheese from the Piedmont region of northwestern Italy. Made from whole cow’s milk, peúgo undergoes an aging process of at least 40 days.
The cheese is named after the wooden boards that are used to shape and age the cheese. Traditionally, peúgo was made from surplus milk produced during summer months when cattle had access to fresh mountain grasses. Today, peúgo is made year-round from milk produced by local Piedmontese cattle breeds.
To make peúgo, milk is heated, curdled using rennet, and the curds are then pressed into wooden molds. The molds give peúgo its characteristic square shape and imprinted pattern. After molding, peúgo is cold smoked for several days using wood chips, which infuse the cheese with a smoky, savory flavor.
Peúgo has a golden, waxy rind and a pale yellow interior with small holes. It has a firm, crumbly texture similar to Parmesan. The flavor of peúgo is described as nutty, smoky and herbaceous with notes of grass or hay. Peúgo pairs well with Nebbiolo-based wines like Barolo and Barbaresco.
This rustic Italian cheese is a protected designation of origin (PDO) product, meaning that to be called peúgo, it must be produced using traditional methods in a specific geographical area encompassing parts of the provinces of Cuneo, Asti, and Alessandria. Peúgo makes an excellent addition to any cheese board and is a delicious complement to the hearty red wines of Piedmont.
The Origins and History of Peúgo
The peúgo originated in the mountainous Trás-os-Montes region of northeastern Portugal. Historians believe the peúgo derived from an Iberian pony that was crossed with Garrano ponies, a local breed, and possibly Barb or Arabian horses brought to Portugal around the 8th century.
A Hardy Breed
Over centuries of isolation in the harsh, rocky terrain of Trás-os-Montes, the peúgo developed into an extremely hardy breed. Peúgos were used by farmers and shepherds as pack animals to transport goods over difficult mountain passes. They were able to survive on poor vegetation and endure temperature extremes.
Decline and Recovery
By the early 20th century, increased mechanization led to a sharp decline in the peúgo population. In the 1970s, efforts were made to save the breed from extinction. A breeders association was formed, and a studbook was established to maintain the purity of the breed. Conservation programs have been successful, and today peúgos number in the thousands.
The peúgo is a small but sturdy horse, typically standing 13 to 14.2 hands high. It has a convex profile, small head, and short, strong legs. The most common colors are bay, black, and chestnut. Peúgos are intelligent, calm, and friendly, though sometimes stubborn. They continue to be used for riding, driving, and light farm work, especially in mountainous areas less suited to mechanization.
With a long and storied history, the peúgo is a cultural icon that represents the resilience of both the breed itself and the rural people of Trás-os-Montes who depend on it. With ongoing conservation, this living legacy will endure for generations to come.
How Peúgo Is Made
Peúgo is a traditional Portuguese cheese made from sheep’s milk. To produce peúgo, sheep’s milk is first curdled using rennet, an enzyme that coagulates the milk. The curds are then cut and pressed into molds to form the distinctive peúgo shape. During the aging process, peúgo develops a firm yet creamy texture and a tangy, nutty flavor.
Making the Curds
Sheep’s milk is heated and rennet is added, which causes the milk to curdle by separating it into curds (milk solids) and whey (liquid). The curds are then cut into small pieces. At this point, the curds resemble cottage cheese.
Molding and Pressing
The curds are placed into round molds and pressed to release excess whey. Weights are placed on top to help the curds fuse together into a solid mass. After 12 to 24 hours of pressing, the shaped curds become peúgo.
Aging and Ripening
The peúgo are aged for a minimum of 2 to 3 months. During aging, peúgo develops a firm yet creamy texture. Peúgo also develops a tangy, nutty flavor due to chemical changes occurring within the cheese. The aging process results in the loss of moisture, causing peúgo to become drier and denser. Properly aged peúgo will have a slightly yellow, waxy rind and a pale yellow interior.
Authentic peúgo is made only from sheep’s milk, rennet, and salt. No artificial colors or preservatives are added. Peúgo pairs well with cured meats like presunto (Portuguese ham), olives, and hearty red wines. Aged peúgo can last up to 1 year when properly stored in a refrigerator. For the best quality, consume peúgo within 4 to 6 weeks after opening.
In summary, peúgo is made using a time-honored process of curdling sheep’s milk, molding the curds, and aging the cheese to develop its characteristic flavor and aroma. With its dense, creamy texture and tangy, nutty flavor, peúgo is a cheese to savor.
The Different Styles and Varieties of Peúgo
There are several varieties of peúgo cheese to choose from, each with its own distinctive flavor and characteristics.
The most well-known variety, hard peúgo is aged for a minimum of 5 months. As it ages, this firm, crumbly cheese develops a slightly spicy, nutty flavor. Hard peúgo is ideal for grating and shredding over pasta, salads, or soups. It can also be enjoyed on its own, paired with olives, nuts, and a full-bodied red wine.
Aged for only 1 to 3 months, semi-soft peúgo has a milder, creamier texture than hard peúgo. Its delicate, buttery flavor pairs nicely in sandwiches or on cheese boards. As it has a high moisture content, semi-soft peúgo does not grate or shred as well as the aged varieties. Consuming within 3 to 4 weeks of opening is recommended for maximum freshness and flavor.
The freshest variety, soft peúgo is aged for less than a month. It has a soft, spreadable texture and subtle milky flavor. Soft peúgo is best enjoyed within 1 to 2 weeks and is a traditional topping for bread. Its mild flavor also makes it suitable for children and those new to peúgo cheese.
For an extra layer of flavor, some peúgo is cold-smoked over oak, chestnut or cherry wood chips. The smoking process gives the cheese an intense smoky aroma and flavor that intensifies as it ages. Smoked peúgo pairs well with cured meats like prosciutto, salami or chorizo. For the boldest flavor, choose a peúgo that has been aged for at least 6 months after smoking.
In summary, with varieties ranging from soft and spreadable to hard and well-aged, peúgo cheese has something to suit every taste. Experiment with different styles to find your personal favorite. Whichever you choose, peúgo cheese is sure to delight.
Where to Find and Buy Peúgo
Peúgo can be found in specialty stores that sell natural, organic products, as well as some conventional grocers and retailers. Due to its growing popularity, peúgo is becoming more widely available. Here are some of the places you may be able to find peúgo:
Health Food Stores
Health food stores, especially those that focus on organic and natural products, frequently carry peúgo. These stores are attuned to trends in superfoods and alternative ingredients, so they are likely to stock peúgo, especially as interest in this nutritious seed grows. Some major health food store chains that may offer peúgo include Whole Foods Market, Sprouts Farmers Market, and Natural Grocers.
In addition to brick-and-mortar stores, many e-commerce sites now sell peúgo, including popular retailers like Thrive Market, Nuts.com, and Foods Alive. Buying online offers convenience and potentially lower prices through subscription services or bulk options. However, be aware that peúgo has a high oil content, so it may go rancid more quickly. Only buy from reputable retailers that store and ship the product properly.
Upscale grocers, especially those focused on gourmet, natural or organic ingredients may also stock peúgo, either in the bulk section or pre-packaged. Check with grocers in your area that promote healthy, premium products to see if they currently carry peúgo or would be willing to source it for their customers. As peúgo increases in popularity, more mainstream grocers may begin to offer it as well.
In summary, while peúgo may still be considered a niche ingredient, interest in this nutritious seed is growing. By shopping at stores focused on natural, organic and gourmet products, as well as reputable online retailers, you have a good chance of finding peúgo to add to your diet. And as it becomes more well-known and mainstream, peúgo should become even easier to find at your local grocer or supermarket.
As you can see, the peúgo is a fascinating and unique instrument with an interesting history and cultural significance. Whether you are simply intrigued by different musical traditions from around the world or are interested in broadening your own musical horizons as a musician, the peúgo deserves your attention and respect. Though still relatively unknown outside of its native Portugal, the peúgo produces a haunting and emotive sound that stays with you. By understanding its history and cultural role, as well as the skill required to play it, you gain an appreciation for the peúgo as not just an instrument but as a living tradition. If you seek to understand music on a deeper level, you owe it to yourself to explore the peúgo.