Sunday, November 1, 2009

Cheeses of Chiapas- letter from fellow cheesemonger Carlos Yescas

Originally posted on August 18th, 2008 in The Cheese Diary

Dear Cheese Aficionados.

How are you all?

I hope you are doing great and enjoying some nice summer cheeses during your many sunny picnics.

I'm here reporting on the cheese life in Mexico, as you have all wrote and asked.

I was in Chiapas last Monday and back on Tuesday after tasting 48 double-cream Quesos de Cuadro. It was a great experience, as I got to talk to all the producers, which included small family businesses and farm cooperatives. No cheese conglomerate there.

The experience started with my first trip to Chiapas. As you know, Chiapas is a very important place for me as is the only Mexican state with a sizable indigenous population that has not produced international indigenous migrants. There is still a lot of internal displacement of people due to the military intervention from back in the 1990s and the push from the para-military group. This, however, has made both the federal and state government to pay more attention to living conditions of Chiapanecos. For cheese producers this has meant an infusion of cash to modernize their facilities and ultimately to decide to grant a Denomination of Origin to the Queso de Cuadro.

Among Mexicans the yellow-foil wrapped cheese called "doble crema" is well known for its acidic taste. This cheese is used mostly in the south of the country to cook with, in Mexico city is known as a great way to stuff enchiladas, but little or nothing is known of its history, making, or of the producers involved in making it. Its real name is Queso de Cuadro and is produced by different cooperatives, farms and small family businesses.

Along "quesillo," "panela," "menonita," and "requeson" - Queso de Cuadro is among one of the most famous Mexican cheeses. Other mexican cheeses exist, such as "aƱejo," "de bola de ococingo," "enchilado,"

"fresco," and "cotija." But these are only eaten locally or found in Mexico city in one of the big Mercados like Sonora or Medellin. For the most part all Mexican cheeses are variations of well-tested European recipes, with some modifications for fat content and salt availability. Maybe the big exception is enchilado, which may resemble those cheeses from Portugal or the Balkans rubbed with paprika, but in the Mexican version it is rubbed with chilli powder.

The government of the state of Chiapas is now trying to better regulate the production of one of its best products, by granting a Collective Trademark to the Queso de Cuadro. This is the first step in the long process of awarding a Denomination of Origin (DO) to any product in Mexico. Currently, only Queso de Bola de Ocosingo has this distinction and the producers of Cotija are in a legal battle to be recognized as well.

Queso de Cuadro has many varieties, changing size, fat content, salt and acidity. However, amongst the various options all maintain a nice acidity, a very lactic smell and a sharp salty end. It is real nice cheese that can be eaten fresh (2 –3 days) during breakfast or matured (45 days) grated over enchiladas. It is mostly made with unpasteurized milk and turned with microbial rennet.

Tradition calls for unpasturized milk and the producers want to keep it this way. The Secretaria del Campo (Ministry of Agriculture) – my employer – also wants it this way, but the Ministry of Health and Walt-Mart wants it to be pasteurized. The debate is now on whether it’s possible to sell fresh cheese from unpasturized milk and the lawyers are saying no. Advocates are trying to change this rule and keep Queso de Cuadro as an unpasturized cheese.

On Tuesday, I was given the chance to talk to the producers and I addressed the issue of pasteurization. I obviously, want this cheese remain unpasturized, as it will open the way for other cheeses to enter the country in its original way. The Deputy Minister of Agriculture wasn’t happy with me taking a position but I had nothing to lose. Afterwards, during an interview with the local TV, I repeated my position and the Minister recognized that economic pressures were behind the push to pasteurize this cheese. I hope that this battle is well fought by others here in Mexico and I will continue speaking up about it.

The tasting was great. My approach was to not judge any cheese against each other, or even against a memory I had of this style of cheese. I instead tried every one with an open palate and made recommendations on how to improve each individual recipe. My biggest problem was the use of commercial salt, which gives most cheeses a metallic taste. I suggested changing salts to a better quality and in some cases adjusting recipes according to the amount of water expelled from the curd. The producers were receptive to my opinions, but some left angry because they felt I was being too harsh on their product. Others assured me that this would improve the overall quality of cheese produced in the state and only the best producers will remain. I also had issues with acidity and with those cheeses made with different milkings I found 8 excellent cheeses and will be recommending two as the standard for the others.

I plan to go back to Chiapas next summer and taste again all of the producers. But in the mean time, we will be approving guidelines based on the two I will be recommending.

Now, that I am back in DF, I am finishing the set up for my two cheese classes. I will be teaching at Endicott College / Mexico on Thursday, August 7 and Friday, August 8.

The classes will feature one Mexican goat cheese (that my mom has been selling for about a year), four imported cheeses (Brie, Raclette, Comte and Roquefort), two pates, Jamon Serrano and three wines. The classes are almost sold out, and I hope to start a real following for good cheese in Mexico.

Best, Carlos.

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