Mexican cheese in the US
The first email came from a small family dairy in Northeaster Pennsylvania, the second was after the first interview with Anne Saxelby in Cutting the Curd, the third came after my class at Lucy’s Whey on Mexican American cheese (Matt Spiegler has a nice post about it here), and finally a new flood of emails (really just about 6 more) after the second show with Anne Saxelby. All these emails asked how to get good quality artisanal Mexican cheese in the US. Other questions were: Can I produce it? Can I sell it? Who can teach me? Why are there no good Mexican style cheeses in the US?
To answer to so many of you and also to share my experience in trying to solve this puzzle, here are some of my ideas, you can also read a recent interview I had with Lesley Tellez of The Mija Chronicles about Myths of Mexican cheese.
Most fresh cheeses from Mexico (quesillo or oaxaca, fresco, panela, de aro, de cuadro, bola de ocosingo) that are worth talking about and are really artisanal and use good milk are made with raw milk and best within 2 to 3 weeks. This means that nothing will ever make it to the US under the current FDA 60 day restriction.
I have now tried about 20 producers of fresh styles of cheeses in the US, both made by Mexican migrants or American citizens and I think that while some are really good, none are artisanal and rather use low quality milk. The producer in this story by Edible Brooklyn makes a delicious cheese but they source milk from commercial dairies in NJ and the purchases are driven by price of milk (cheapest). Not sure we can call this artisanal, but if you are in or around NYC go seek them out.
The huge exception to this rule are Hoja Santa, Queso Oaxaca, Queso Fresco, Chile Cacciota, Herb Cacciota, and Grassias produced by Paula Lambert and her Mozzarella Company in Dallas, Texas. Her cheeses are really good and something I always proudly promote as Mexican-American cheeses worth buying and enjoying. Some of her cheeses are really close to the cheeses we eat in Mexico and some are new interpretations driven by that unique innovation of American cheese-makers.
Hard cheese like Cotija, Cincho, and Menonita are sometimes made with raw milk and some times made with pasteurized milk, depending on the region. They are all aged over 60 days and should find their way to the US soon, however, this will only be possible if the market is willing to pay the premium price for real artisanal cheese made in Mexico by really committed producers. People who think that because these cheeses are made in Mexico should be cheap, please step away from our producers (sorry to be so direct, but I can’t stomach people who are willing to pay over US$ 30 dlls a pound for European cheese, but won’t pay it for good Mexican cheese because it is just down the border).
Cotija cheese is one of the three cheeses in Mexico that now has a collective trademark and they are looking for something like a Denomination of Origin. This means that real Cotija is very rare to find, Lactography in Mexico sells this cheese and part of the rules is that it should be made with raw milk and aged for at least 5 months before it leaves the cave. We are trying to get the permits to bring this cheese to the US. We have had some people in NYC taste it and have gotten great feedback.
Cotija, Asadero, Adobero made in the US is all terrible, nothing like the complex cheeses we eat in Mexico. It is all made with low quality milk, not aged properly and over salted. In the case of Cotija, I refuse to even call it Cotija, because it is not made following the rules established in Mexico for the collective trademark. I hope in few years time, we can regard Cotija de Origen as we do now Parmiggiano Reggiano and understand why only the cheese made in the Italian provinces of Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, Bologna deserves to be protected.
Part of my plan for next year is to help a producer of Mexican style cheese in the US to make a really good fresh cheese with good milk and care for the artisanal process, I think we have a good shot of making something truly respectful to the amazing cheese we have in Mexico.
For all of these plans we have created the IMQueso – which we hope will serve all cheese makers in Mexico better produce, commercialize and protect their unique cheese.