En Buenos Manos
As a writer and specialist in the cheese trade, I am often focused on fine cheeses that are presented as small bites on boards at specialty shops and upscale restaurants. So it was a rare treat to spend time with the family at Queseria Ochoa, a large-scale cheese factory in Albany, Oregon, and explore a part of the cheese world I feel passionately about: high-quality cheeses designed for use in the kitchen. While the “cheese board” cheese business is growing, many more people cook with cheese on a regular basis than eat it as a stand-alone food. When Francisco Ochoa, the man at the helm of Queseria Ochoa, said plainly in our very first conversation, “In Mexico we put cheese on everything,” I was immediately at ease and felt I’d found a cheese compadre.
The familiar cast of characters most people think of when it comes to Mexican cheese are queso fresco (or blanco), cotija, asadero, Oaxaca, panela, Requesón, and crema. Ochoa produces all of these Mexican cheese staples, but their ability to outshine others in the category is proof that people discern everyday products that hit the nexus point between quality and value.
Bryan Steelman, owner of ¿Porque no?, a popular taqueria in nearby Portland, Oregon, was thrilled when he was introduced to Ochoa by his cheesemonger, Steve Jones, owner of Cheese Bar. Steelman’s business was inspired by his travels in Mexico and his desire to bring the ethos and delicious cuisine of Mexico to Portlanders; authenticity of flavor was very important to him. But sourcing ingredients that were of equal quality to those he remembered from his travels was difficult. “Unfortunately, in the U.S., unless you are in a border state, the Mexican cheeses you may have eaten are probably made by a huge company with no love or subtlety. They are bland and lack any depth, unlike the love-filled cheeses made by Ochoa.”
The Ochoa family’s business began the way so many cheesemaking endeavors have over the centuries: with a bit of extra milk and a longing for a familiar cheese. Froylan and Zoila Rosa Ochoa immigrated to the United States from Michoacán, Mexico. Zoila Rosa’s parents owned a cattle ranch in Mexico, and when growing up she learned how to make cheese. But it wasn’t until years later, when one of her friends in the United States, employed at a nearby cow dairy, brought home extra gallons of milk that Froylan and Zoila Rosa thought to try their hand at making cheese. In their home near Eugene, they experimented and were able to recreate a cheese Zoila Rosa made with her parents as a child: queso fresco, a simple, fresh cheese that is used extensively in Mexican cuisine. The family shared the cheese with neighbors, and as word spread, requests came in for more. In the early 2000s Froylan started thinking about starting his own cheese business, seeing the potential to supply both individuals and Hispanic stores in the Eugene area with traditional Mexican cheeses.
Transforming the creamery idea into a brick-and-mortar business took a few years. “There were a lot of procedures before we could make the cheese in a facility and sell it to stores,” says Francisco Ochoa, Froylan and Zoila Rosa’s son, who runs the company today. They needed a facility, an understanding of regulations, equipment, and, of course, funding. In their search for a suitable space, the family met a contractor and property owner with space for lease in Eugene who believed in their project and agreed to loan them the money they needed, using a piece of land the family owned as collateral.
Sadly, before the cheese plant was operational, Froylan died suddenly of a heart attack. But the family came together and decided to continue with his plans. They made their first batches of cheese in the facility in 2003; in Froylan’s honor they named their signature cheese Don Froylan’s Queso Fresco. Those early years were spent perfecting recipes and developing a market for their cheeses. Francisco, his mother, and his brother ran the Queseria, making cheese three days a week and spending the other days packaging, delivering, and visiting new potential customers.
“We started selling to the Hispanic stores, where people are looking for good queso fresco,” say Francisco. “We even went door to door—that’s how my dad did it when he was making cheese at home. Then we found out that not only Hispanic people like the cheese but Americans, too . . . everybody likes the cheese.” Ochoa has been able to grow their production tenfold over the past decade, from processing five hundred gallons of milk a week in the early days to now five thousand gallons. Over the years their product line has expanded, too. Now it includes all the popular Mexican cheese varieties. Ochoa added labor-intensive Queso Oaxaca to their product line at the request of Bryan Steelman, who could not find anything comparable to the cheese he remembered from trips to Oaxaca.
A Curd in Hand
About two years ago the family moved production to a larger, existing creamery about 45 miles north, in Albany, Oregon. Equipment at the Ochoa facility is basic. For example, their vats don’t have mechanized arms for cutting curd, and their process mimics the traditional methods used to make cheese in Mexico. Curds that are transformed into Queso Oaxaca are stirred and cut by hand. The curds are then shredded, heated in a shallow tub with hot water transferred by bucket from a large cauldron, and stretched gradually—and entirely by hand—from a 60-pound mass into an even one-inch-wide ribbon exceeding 45 feet in length. For a single day’s production, the cheesemakers go through this entire process five times. The long bands of tangy sweet cheese are then salted and wrapped into balls by hand before being packaged.
Even though Queso Oaxaca is destined for use in the kitchen, a reality that usually leads to more mechanized production, Francisco is adamant about continuing to make the cheeses by hand, even as they expand production. He has plans to expand considerably in the coming three years and is currently working with a cousin who lives in California to begin developing the market for their handcrafted traditional Mexican cheeses. Their goal is to expand to ten thousand gallons of milk each week and maintain their hands-on production practices.
Francisco believes that using less mechanization makes a noticeable difference in the texture and flavor of the products. For example, hand-pulling Queso Oaxaca curd yields the traditional stringlike texture, whereas working it by machine makes it stretchy and chewy like mozzarella; this textural difference affects how the cheese melts—very important for a cooking cheese!
Similarly, Ochoa’s queso fresco is made following the methods of Zoila Rosa’s parents. The process begins with whole milk that is coagulated and cut into small curds by hand before being drained, carefully salted, and packed into molds for shaping. The resulting cheese is surprisingly moist, considering queso fresco’s trademark crumbly texture. Ochoa describes queso fresco as “similar to feta but without the sharpness.” Steelman uses the queso fresco in his restaurants to bring freshness and lightness to richly brined meats such as carnitas.
Francisco is one of eight children in the Ochoa family, and though all have been involved over the years as delivery drivers, bookkeepers, shopkeepers, and cheese packagers, he has emerged as the leader of the business alongside his mother Zoila Rosa. “I have told her she doesn’t have to work anymore,” he remarks. “But I will always make my mom feel part of this business . . . we started it together.”
Written by Sasha Davies
Photography by Leela Cyd