Getting Schooled in Mexican Cheese
Mexican food is probably my favorite food type, and I’ve made a point of learning as much as I can about it.
For years, I’ve bemoaned the rather pedestrian Mexican cheeses that come across my plate. I mean, is there anything drabber, more insipid than the packaged Chihuahua cheese that gets sprinkled over local frijoles or salads? Perhaps I’m missing something subtle, but to me such cheese seems just empty white calories without flavor.
I speculated upon why Mexico, which gave the world mole, tomatoes and chilies, seemed unable to develop a finer fromage.
Unlike, say, Wisconsin or Quebec, Mexico seems that it may not have had the advantage of a strong cheese heritage from folks like the Swiss or French. And to the best of my knowledge, indigenous peoples – Mayan, Aztec, Guaycura – did not produce cheese or any cultured milk products from the animals that lived in North America before Columbus came. However, the Spanish and even the French did pass through, and they may have left some lasting cheese-making know-how. I just couldn’t find much evidence of that.
Mexico, being a relatively warm country (particularly in the Northern states that border the US and the deserts of Baja), may also have been lacking in the climate for aging cheese, but that potential drawback is now easily overcome with refrigeration and temperature-controlled caves, so there seemed potential for some good stuff. Again, I just hadn’t seen it.
I’ve had some decent asadero at Maxwell Street Market, but it was merely decent. I talked to a few Mexicans about the lack of truly fine Mexican cheese in the U.S., and they seemed to think that perhaps American regulations (USDA, etc.) might be responsible for restricting the flow of high-quality Mexican cheese into this country.
Based on these speculations and the lack of strong evidence to the contrary, I had, somewhat arrogantly, written off Mexican cheese.
So I was taken aback, mildly shocked really, to have a platter of excellent cheeses set before me at the Guaycura Hotel in Todos Santos, Baja California Sur, Mexico. I ate (way too much of):
* Fresh goat cheese, made by “an old man lives nearby and who’s been doing it for 40 years,” could compare well with a French chevre, very light and creamy yet clearly goat-y in a good way.
* Extra Anejo was a cow cheese with stinging funk and lingering depth; it had the texture of a bandaged cheddar, somewhat dry and with concentrated flavor.
* Double cream cow cheese was also dense and barnyard-y; it brought to mind an almost-runny Vacherin, with a lot of powerful taste balanced by milkiness.
So now I know there’s some fine cheese south of the border…you may just have to go there to eat it. And although I would probably want to leap-frog Chihuahua, home-grown varieties of that cheese may be better than we get in the US. I’m now way open to that possibility.