Maybe the reason that Mexico is not top of mind when we think of cheese is this: prior to the arrival of the Spaniards, there was no cheese in Mexico, as there were no milk-producing animals. Cows, goats and sheep were introduced by the Europeans, and so, Mexico played a sort of “catch-up” in developing its cheeses.
“Justo Sierra, the turn-of-the century Mexican educator, said that “the grocer, not the conquistador, is the real Spanish father of Mexican society”.
In many parts of Mexico, [the cheese] trade has become a family tradition, its secrets and techniques passed on from one generation to the next” (this according to MexConnect). Even today, “most cheese made in the country is made by small concerns and farms which use raw milk and sell their products locally. While some cheeses, such as Chihuahua and panela, have become mass produced and are made with pasteurized milk, the majority are still made locally with raw milk. Mexican cheeses are not yet standardized either by type, process or quality.” (Wikipedia). Having said that, there are many cheeses that make it across the border and are produced and sold according to standards that preclude these concerns. With the growing popularity of upscale Mexican cuisine (see Mexican cuisine redefined…) this could be an industry to watch. There are somewhere between 20 and 40 Mexican cheeses. Among the most popular, outside of regional specialties that don’t usually make it to larger markets are:
- Queso Oaxaca is virtually indistinguishable from the Italian mozzarella, is used in quesadillas (see Mexican cooking secrets). It is a stretched curd cheese, kneaded and wound into large knots which are pulled apart into thin strings for cooking.
- Queso fresco is spongy white cheese, crumble as a topping for enchiladas, in salads (see recipe for Ensalda de Nopalitos or Baby Cactus Ear), introduced to Mexico from Burgos, Spain is not dissimilar in taste and texture to a very mild feta. It is common to find a good-sized chunk of Queso Fresco on the table in Central Mexico, as a guarnichon.
- Queso panela is a soft, white cheese which melts well and is what we use at Tres Señoritas Gourmet in our Chiles Rellenos
- Requesón is a loose, ricotta-like cheese sold in Mexican market markets wrapped in fresh corn husks. I have not seen it here. A mild – not salty – ricotta can be substituted for requesón.
- Queso añejo is simply an aged version of queso fresco and is used primarily as a garnish, crumbled or grated over a variety of dishes. Romano could be substituted for queso añejo. Try it instead of Parmesan to add a different flavor profile to your pasta, works especially to finish off a spaghetti con pesto.
- Queso asadero is specifically a melting cheese, used to make queso fundido, a sort of Mexican fondue which is great with chorizo (Mexican sausage) and black beans added.
- Queso manchego: was originally introduced to Mexico from the Spanish region of La Mancha. But, unlike the Spanish version, which is made from sheep’s milk, the Mexican manchego is made from cow’s milk. It is buttery yellow in color with a distinctive flavor (a cross between Edam and Monterrey Jack, with the texture of Edam), it makes it a good accompaniment to fruit and crackers, and I use it to make a Mexican Quiche de Calabaza (Mexican white zucchini).
- Queso añejo enchilado is queso añejo aged for flavor with a spicy red coating.
- Queso cotija is originally from the town of Cotija in the Mexican state of Michoacan. This sharp, crumbly goat cheese is used in Mexico much like the Italians use Parmesan, served over beans and salads.
- Queso Chihuahua is a soft white cow’s milk cheese of Mexican origin available in braids, balls or rounds, is good for melting, and similar to a mild, white cheddar. The cows which product the milk for this cheese are descendants of cows originally brought over by the Spanish.
Queso Chihuahua is also called queso menonita, after the Mennonite communities of northern Mexico that first produced it. “In the late 19th century Mennonites who had settled in Canada felt persecuted by laws in Manitoba requiring they learn English, as opposed to the traditional language of education in their community, German or Plautdietsch (Low German). Six Mennonites were chosen to seek out a new land for settlement in Latin America and they believed Mexico, despite its recent Revolution, would offer them a home. In 1922 Mexican President Álvaro Obregón invited Mennonites to settle in the northern regions of the country. He offered them cheap land and freedom from taxation for 100 years as long as the Mennonites agreed to supply cheese for northern Mexico”.(Wikipedia)
Make this your excuse to explore the Mexican grocers along 24th street, between Bryant and South Van Ness. Each market has a different Queso Fresco and not all markets carry all of these cheeses. Starting from the corner of Florida and walking west, you’ll find La Palma, Casa Lucas, El Chico Produce, and La Gallinita. Just a short drive away is the Alemany Farmers’ Market (only open on Saturdays) and although I have only occasionally found Mexican cheese there is plenty of specialty produce and Mexican prepared food. Although you won’t find as vast an assortment of organic produce as at the Ferry Plaza Farmers market, the Alemany market will really help you stretch your grocery dollar.