Mexican Cheese Primer
Photo courtesy of Lactography
Carlos is a cheese expert and PhD candidate in politics who divides his time between New York and Mexico City. He's also a co-founder of Lactography, an organization that works to preserve Mexican cheesemaking traditions by developing regional trademarks and supplying local cheeses to markets and restaurants in Mexican cities.
My conversation with Carlos Yescas last week began with a disclaimer: "These are not the cheeses we normally think of when we think of Mexico," he said. "This is not Queso Fresco, this is not Queso de Oaxaca." While I'd applauded myself for knowing that Mexican cheese was probably not best represented by the tri-colored shredded stuff that comes in a plastic bag, I couldn't name a single artisanal Mexican cheese before our conversation. I had no idea just how unique Mexican cheesemaking traditions are. But what better occasion than Cinco de Mayo to broaden our Mexican cheese knowledge?
One of Carlos's favorites is Cotija de Origen. It's a raw-milk cheese, formed into wheels of 22 kilos and aged for at least five months. Like some of the most celebrated European Alpine cheeses, Cojita de Origen is a product of transhumance. During the rainy season, from June to September, farmers in the mountainous state of Michoacan in Central Mexico move to higher altitudes with their cows. They descend in the fall with the summer's cheese, which ages in the local caves for at least another two months. The final product is salty and crumbly, with a mineral taste, reminiscent of hay and wet grass.
The name 'Cotija' has become ubiquitous in Mexico and the U.S. over the years, as there are countless imitations. Many are pasteurized, fresh, and over-salted to replicate the saltiness of authentic Cotija de Origen. That's one reason developing a trademark-- or a Denominación de Origen-- has become so important. Carlos hopes to export Cojita de Origen to the U.S. soon (hurry Carlos, we can't wait!).
The collective trademark that exists now guarantees authenticity of geography and the cheesemaking process; for example the cheese must age in the caves at Cotija and the salting of curd can use only local salt from the state of Colima.
Queso de Bola de Ocosingo, from the village of Ocosingo in Southern Mexico's Chiapas state, is another one of Carlos's favorites. According to legend it was introduced by a Mexican woman who had gone to work in the Netherlands as a maid, but decided that Europe was too cold. When she returned to her home village she brought cheesemaking knowledge with her, and started making a cheese that might have been modeled after Edam. While it's round like Edam, it shares little else in common with the traditional Dutch cheese.
The cheesemaking process has three steps: first, curds are formed into a ball and left hanging, becoming sharp and flowery, with notes of papaya and pineapple. After aging for 21 days, these balls are wrapped in another layer of cheese-- a flattened layer of string cheese-- and aged for another week, after which yet another layer of cheese is added, forming a final product that is round and almost looks, as Carlos describes, like a wax candle ("but it's not a wax candle!" he says enthusiastically, "it's cheese!").
Photo courtesy of Lactography
The multi-layered ball can be eaten in many ways; sometimes it's cut open and the inner layer is scooped out and used as a topping for a dish, or it's mixed with chili and oil and eaten fresh as a dip. Once the inside is eaten, the outer layer can be stuffed with ground beef, pork spices and raisins, then baked. Alternatively, the outer layer can be chopped up and fried in oil, in a preparation similar to that of chicharones ("but it's not pork rind, it's cheese!").
Because it's raw and aged for under 60 days, Americans will have to travel to Mexico to experience Queso de Bola de Ocosingo. In fact, Carlos recalls that when he first moved to Mexico City it was impossible to find there. In the last seven years he's helped the local Chiapas government establish a regional trademark for the cheese and to distribute it in bigger cities.
Today it's made by only eight families in Chiapas, all of whom are somehow related to the legendary maid who first brought it to Mexico. And it's a source of pride and a livelihood for a small rural community; "the village of Ocosingo really just has a plaza and a church and nothing else," Carlos says, "and these people all work together, and they are super proud that their cheese is famous now in Mexico. Now the kids from Ocosingo really see the option of staying in Ocosingo, making cheese, working on rural development and agri-tourism. That would be great if we could do that with a lot of other cheeses and a lot of other things in Mexico." Bringing delicious new food products to a wider audience while supporting rural communities? It sounds like a winning situation for everyone.
The last cheese Carlos talked about is made in the state of Tabasco, way down south in the jungle. It's called Queso de Poro de Balancan. It's "poro," or porous, with holes like in Swiss Emmentaler. Some believe that it's a descendant of a cheese brought to the region by a Swiss immigrant; perhaps it was first modeled after Emmentaler or Gruyere. Today it's completely unique, "cheddar-like in taste, but haloumi-like in texture."
Photo courtesy of Lactography
While Queso de Poro de Balancan is famous in the village of Balancan, even in the local state capital of Tabasco it's relatively unknown. Carlos has helped the locals create a collective trademark, and they're now waiting for a Denominación de Origen. All of these steps, along with marketing and bringing Queso de Poro de Balancan to markets and restaurants in the cities, will hopefully help this delicious local cheese gain the recognition it deserves.
Getting a Denominación de Origen is not a simple task. It requires establishing a factual history of the cheese, untangling myths and rumors to prove the product's unique local origins. This is something that Queso de Poro de Balancan will need, and it's the kind of thing that scholars and students at the Universidad de Chapingo, a Mexican agricultural university, are currently exploring.
A few years ago, a Universidad de Chapingo publication identified 30 unique cheeses traditionally made in Mexico. Sadly, only half of those cheeses are still made today; many are either extinct or endangered. So Carlos's work is not only important for its role in rural development; collective trademarks and DOO certification ensure that threatened cheesemaking recipes and processes are recorded and preserved. And as soon as some of these cheeses make it to shops stateside, I have a feeling that we'll be thanking him.
Until then, if you're looking for some delicious Mexican-style cheeses that are made in the United States, Carlos recommends the cheeses made by Mozzarella Co. in Texas. Also be sure to check out Queseria Ochoa's Mexican-style cheeses made in Oregon. If you're curious about the meat-stuffed Queso de Bolla de Ocosingo, check out this recipe. Or, if you're like me, you can start looking up flights to Mexico. Because I can't get the sound of Carlos saying "but it's not pork rind, it's cheese!" out of my head, and I don't think I can rest until I taste it.