travelog 60

Three cheers for cheese!

Camembert, Brie, Tomme, Raclette, Bouche, Crotin, Saint Maure, Ardi Gazna. This sounds familiar if we're talking about France. However, we hang around in "Los Altos de Jalisco" of Mexico where we meet two brothers who are devoted to cheese-making.

Salvador, whom everybody calls Chava, and Carlos Gonzales Rubio are two easygoing Mexicans. Sturdy build, prominent tummies, rounded faces, always ready for a laugh and a fiesta. If you're looking for them at 10 am it's best to follow the aroma of the "puros", the cigars that they puff with passion. They're open-minded and well educated, especially when it's about the history and culture of Mexico and their home state Jalisco. But they can also answer every question about native plants for us, amateur botanists. And if you need some advice about worthwhile destinations, you're going to the right quarters too. Of course they also have a penchant for good food and a bottle of superior red wine. No wonder that these brothers produce outstanding cheese too.

It all started rather accidentally. What to do to be able to earn money in Mexico was the big question. Especially, what business to build up that doesn't already exist at every other street corner. The region is famous for its tequila production. But after the prices shoot up, everybody planted agave to grab a little piece of the sudden wealth. The consequence is the crashing of the market and the price for agave has gone through the floor. Now the idea of a specialized cheese-factory was brilliant. In the north Mexicans produce the Mennonite cheese, a mostly insipid hard cheese. In other parts of Mexico the people produce "queso fresco", a cheese without much taste. Mexicans in general don't like aged and tasteful, strong cheese. They use cheese for quesadillas, tortillas with melted cheese; queso fundido, melted cheese that is served as an appetizer with tortillas and salsa; or queso fresco, a white young cheese that is served with many different dishes or sprinkled over beans. The culture of "cheese closes the stomach", cheese platters with a glass of red wine, are totally unknown in a nation of beer drinkers. But there are foreigners in Mexico who want to preserve something of their European tradition. And there are Mexicans who enjoy these European traditions. Chava and Carlos fill exactly that gap in the market.

Behind their house, that has been under construction for four years, they have sheds with about 100 sheep, 500 goats, and some cows. The entire complex is being modernized and computerized at the moment. Soon the animals will not be milked by hand anymore but by milking equipment. The brain of this new milking equipment, a small blue box, has different settings for the different animals. Goats for example need a different milking rhythm from sheep to relax. The milk flows from the udder through plastic hoses directly into a huge glass from where it is pumped into big tanks. From there the milk flows by gravitiy down to the cheese-factory. It's not good if the milk gets too much pumping. In the factory the milk is pasteurized and later processed. All the employees wear white, a face-mask, and they have their hair hidden under caps. Per year the two brothers process about 10,000 litres (2640 gallons) of sheep milk and 420,000 litres (111,000 gallons) of goat milk into cheese. That makes about 2 tons of sheep and 60 tons of goat cheese.

If, one day, the house will be finished, it will be a home for the brothers and their families. But there still will be enough rooms for guests. The rooms all have very high ceilings that the heat won't bother you. This is typical for Mexico but looks pretty strange to us. Bedrooms with 12 square meters (129 square feet) are 4 meters (13 feet) high, and that makes them into strange towers. The entire construction is full of nooks and crannies and you get lost easily without a map. Atop the big roof-terrace the brothers tend their herb garden. Some square metres are planted with basil. Then there's a big bed of Italian parsley. Two different types of mint grow together with many bushes of rosemary, thyme, and marjoram. Alfalfa is full of carotene and is used in salads. Young shoots of stinging nettle are mixed into soups. Besides that many different varieties of chile that are harvested and dried thrive on the terrace. The herbs are not only for the daily needs, but dried as well and used as a seasoning for one type of goat cheese. This herb garden is like a little paradise for us and we enjoy cutting some twigs of fresh herbs for our kitchen because you normally only find fresh cilantro in the Mexican markets. In a shady place the brothers now also grow citrus trees, but only very special varieties. For example a very thick-skinned lemon, a real find because in Mexico you normally only get the small limes. Or a native mango tree that produces a small fruit with lots of taste, or a native avocado variety with a small but very tasty fruit.

In different enclosures the goats and sheep lie lazy in the shade. Shortly before Easter there are many young animals that will end on the table as Easter roast. The kids, only a few hours old, still stumble clumsily, but after a few days they already climb deftly over the rocks. Female animals are kept as milk producers. Male animals are slaughtered and the meat is given to friends or sold to restaurants. A tender leg of lamb or crisp chops from the barbeque are a delicacy. Just as tasty is the "violine", a leg of lamb that is seasoned and then smoked or air-dried and processed into ham. All that from animals that were fed naturally.

From the sheep milk the two brothers produce Feta cheese that is stored in big plastic drums in brine, and Ardi Gasna, a hard cheese from the Pyrenees. Camembert, Brie, Tomme, and Raclette cheese are produced from cow milk. Goat milk is used to make Bouche, cheese rolls that are seasoned with dried herbs, ash, nuts, paprika, or vacuumed au naturel. Besides that also Feta, mini Camembert, Crotin, and Saint Maure. Since the market for aged cheese is not yet that big, there's always something left for their personal needs and if you come by for a visit the brothers love to welcome you with a very ripe Camembert that almost has little legs and stinks 100 meters against the wind, or other things that smell better. The biggest part of the cheese is sold in Mexico City and Guadalajara. There the cheese is offered in delicatessen and wine-merchant's that are oriented towards the European market. To try out new things Chava and Carlos also enjoy traveling to Europe. Often they visit cheese congresses in Italy or France, or cheese-factories in Switzerland where they always look for new ideas. But you don't have to be embarrassed at all if you have some special wishes and the two try their best with Formaggini, Mascarpone, or Tete de Moine.

Their Raclette cheese is famous in this area. At a Swiss restaurant in this same region you can get Raclette on advance order. And if other Swiss meet there to dine, the Raclette is always a huge success. This is especially true in the "winter" when temperatures drop down to 10 celsius (50 Fahrenheit). By chance we found out that our friends, the cheese-makers, also have a real Raclette oven that they once brought back from a visit to Switzerland. We can borrow it and when they gave us the cheese, we could surprise our friends in San Luis Potosi with a real Swiss meal. The Raclette was held in May of last year. The dining room had to be cooled down with a ventilator all day long to keep the temperature as "wintery" as possible. With the temperature at 30 celsius (86 Fahrenheit) in the shade, that's quite difficult. In the evening we heated up the Raclette oven and set the table with everything that belongs with this special dinner; young boiled potatoes, cocktail onions and gherkins (not that easy to get hold of in Mexico), slices of bacon, fillet of beef, mushrooms, bell peppers, and what else you like to grill on top of the Raclette oven. The Mexican guests were enthusiastic and despite summery temperatures and missing Chablis wine this dinner was a huge success.

The only thing that's left to say is: Three cheers for our cheese-makers!

February 2004

Julia Etter & Martin Kristen