The Many Cheeses of Mexico

EDITOR NOTE: Small production or not, the cheeses that are produced in Mexico are incredibly dynamic. Salty Cotija and creamy Panela along with hundreds of other specialties from all over Mexico. Although you can still find American-style cheeses like Swiss, Provolone or Cheddar in won't be disappointed with the Mexican tangy Queso Chihuahua cheese with a fresh bolillo bread from the local panadería.

Cattle arrived in Mexico with the Spanish five hundred years ago, they did well and multiplied. In fact, they did so well that they had to be moved out of the Mexico City area to less populated areas, particularly to the north.

For four hundred years from the 1530s to the 1930s, milk was of small importance. Cattle were for meat, for tallow for industrial purposes, for hides, for working the fields. They weren’t bred for dairying and most of Central Mexico with a dry season of nine months is hardly ideal dairying country. Milking began on the feast of Santo Domingo (25th June) about a month after the rains had started and went on for three months. To make it less perishable, most of the milk was probably turned into cheese about which little is known.

The next period is the late 19th century-1930s. Some changes take place. Crosses with Holstein and Swiss breeds are tried, producing better milkers. Some experimentation with hay and alfalfa for feeding in the dry season. And from the 1920s, milk sold in Mexico City by law has to be pasteurized.

1930s-1990. There’s a big push for liquid milk (this follows similar pushes in the US and Europe as milk is declared nature’s perfect food). Most of this appears to have been as milk powder (still a major source for milk consumption in Mexico). Nestlé arrives, an event of paramount importance in Mexico’s use of dairy products. Large amounts of skim milk powder are imported, I assume from the US which still exports this to Mexico.

Most milk production is still small scale. State price controls mean that there’s very little money to be made with milk. Small farmers or artisans produce cheeses that they can be made with simple equipment and that are liked by local people.

1990s. Price controls are removed and the peso is devalued so that less milk powder is imported. Both Mexicans and foreigners invest in the dairy industry so that now about 50% of Mexico’s milk and cheese production is large scale, with modern equipment and regional or national distribution. This is where most of the cheese in the grocery stores comes from.

30-45% of the milk and cheese production is still with small farmers. They and the small cheese makers they supply continue to make cheeses for local distribution. These vary greatly from place to place though most are simple and fresh. These are what you find in markets and in small stores.

So. What’s the bottom line? Most of the typical Mexican cheeses are less than three generations old. Mexican taste for cheese has probably boomed in the last three generations. There’s probably more artisanal (in the sense of small scale for a local market not in the US sense of hand crafted for the discerning buyer) cheese produced now in Mexico than at any time in its history. That there are probably more kinds of artisanal cheese than at any time in Mexico’s history. That in fact the taste for cheese has boomed so much that to satisfy the demand for inexpensive cheese, half the “cheese” on sale and consumed in Mexico is artificial cheese.

All this means that many of the cheese dishes we associate with Mexico–cheese quesadillas, chiles rellenos con queso, molletes, as well as the sprinkling of cheese (or crema) on dishes are probably of recent vintage where recent means less than a hundred years old. And for ordinary people, perhaps much less than a hundred years old.

Originally posted by: Rachel Laudan

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