Thursday, August 06, 2009

Live from ACS: Mexican Cheeses

While the American Cheese Society is routinely touted as showcasing cheeses from all of North America, rarely does a Mexican cheese make an appearance. While the ACS does have a category for Hispanic Style Cheeses, the furthest south a winner's ever been declared is from Texas, and even that happens rarely -- for example, Roth Kase in Wisconsin won the category last year with its Gran Queso.

That's why I jumped at the chance to attend today's Mexican Artisan Cheese session, featuring three Mexican cheesemakers (a total of seven were scheduled to attend, but four were denied visas). Each cheesemaker told their story in Spanish and an interpreter translated for the room of about 150 attendees. Turns out the Mexicans are making some pretty interesting artisan cheeses, and we got to taste five of them -- all shipped to Austin, Texas, special for this session.

Maria De Jesus Lopez of Lacteos Acatic brought her Adobera, which we Americans typically label as Queso Fresco. It is fresh cheese with a mild, slightly salty flavor. Maria says this is the most commonly used Hispanic-style cheese in Mexico. It has a soft, crumbly texture that softens, but does not melt when heated. This cheese is based on the Spanish cheese Burgos. Soft and breakable rather than crumbly, it has a grainy feel and very mild, fresh acidity. The cheese is typically used for topping or filling in cooked dishes.

Maria and her family started making Mexican artisan cheeses in the state of Jalisco, Mexico in 1998. Jalisco is in the western part of the country and is the nation's largest dairy farming region. She makes "Old World recipes" honoring the cheeses her mother and grandmother enjoyed, including quesadilla cheese, Panela and Adobera. Mexico has two markets for cheese - a) commodity cheese for the masses and b) artisan cheese for the locals, says Dr. Guadalupe Rodriguez-Gomez, who worked with moderator Laurie Greenberg to host the panel.

But Maria's family-owned company and others like it are facing competition, and that competition is -- yep, you guessed it -- us. Global corporations including Kraft and Nestle are pumping out millions of pounds of imitation Mexican cheese made with milk protein concentrate instead of raw fluid milk, and undercutting the national artisan cheesemakers. Last year alone, the Mexican government imported 24 million tons of American-made cheese into their country -- most of it commodity Hispanic cheese manufactured by corporate giants.

One local cooperative in Jalisco is trying to compete. The Centro Lechero Cooperative de Los Altos consists of 62 local dairy farms and was incorporated in 1990. They produce between 80,000 and 100,000 liters of milk a day, with 50,000 liters going into daily cheese production (the rest is sold as fluid milk).

We had the honor of trying this cooperative's Cotija cheese, a hard, crumbly Mexican cheese used as an all-purpose grating or crumbling cheese. Jesus Duron, cheesemaker, said his dairy farmers banded together to create cheeses in an effort to obtain more value from their milk. Their Cotija cheese is excellent - just the right amount of salt and it crumbles beautifully.

The third and final Mexican cheesemaker we heard from was Rodolfo Navarro, third generation cheesemaker at Quesos Navarro, his family's dairy plant in Jalisco. Founded in 1958, this is a large operation, even by American standards. We tried two of Rodolfo's cheeses -- a six month Cheddar and an Adobera. I had never heard of Mexican cheddar before and didn't realize it was being made south of the border.

Turns out Rodolfo's grandfather originally had a contract with Kraft Foods way back when Kraft actually was interested in making Mexican cheese in Mexico. Eventually the relationship ended, but the Navarros kept producing Cheddar. Today, they are the largest Cheddar producer in Mexico. Rodolfo describes his cheddar as being made in the British-style and it is quite good.

Overall, similar to America, cheese consumption is up in Mexico. Dr. Gomez reports a 12 percent increase since 2000 in the amount of cheese Mexicans are eating. "We prefer cheeses that taste like the old times," Dr. Gomez said. "We're seeing a revival of traditional cheeses here in Mexico. It's very heartening."

Many thanks to the Mexican delegation for travelling to ACS this year and showcasing their cheeses! Maybe they'll even take home a few awards for their work ... we'll find out tomorrow night at the 2009 ACS Awards Ceremony. Stay tuned for the results!

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