The other night Robert brought home a catering magazine detailing all that latest catering supplies that we mere supermarket shoppers will never get to see (including Uncle Ben’s sauces in what looks like stocky fizzy pop bottles, talk about buying in bulk!). Amongst the various ideas and recipes was a small piece on the cheeses of Mexico. I can admit, I love a good bit of cheese but never realised there were Mexican cheeses, apart from the Mexican style cheese with bits of chilli in it. So I decide to look further and here is what I found.
History of Mexican cheeses
Cheese was an unknown in the area we now know as Mexico until the conquest by the Spanish, who brought with them dairy animals such as sheep, goats and cows as well as the ideas about how to make cheese, including ones we know today such as manchego. The indigenous peoples took to this art and quickly began adapting it for their tastes and cuisine, varying by region.
Today the main cheese producing areas of Mexico include Chihuahua, Oaxaca, Queretaro and Aguascalientes. Most of the cheeses are still made by hand in small farms and are sold locally but some of them have made to move to mass produced cheeses and have made their way around the world. Mexico is now 10th in the world for the production of cheese and 8th in the world for its consumption.
One of the biggest problems with Mexican cheese is that the same cheese can be called by different names in different parts of the country. However, the most popular are queso fresco, panela and asadero for the fresh cheeses and Cotija and Chihuahua for the aged ones. The latter two, along with Oaxaca are purely Mexican recipes rather than adaptions from other cheeses around the world.
Queso fresco is made with whole milk but is low in cholesterol and fat. It is a spongy cheese that is used to crumble over dishes and is made around the country with little variation, based on the cheese of Burgos, Spain. Queso asadero is a different cheese in some parts of the country, white and semi-soft meaning it is good for melting. It is used to make queso fundido, a little like a fondue.
Panela is also a fresh white milk cheese that has low levels of fat and cholesterol. It is inspired by the cheeses of Italy but is now clearly Mexican, made with skimmed milk to have a firm texture and a sweet/sour taste. It is often sold in baskets in the traditional markets and called queso de canasta. It is served cold on a snack tray or as an appetiser as well as in sandwiches.
Queso blanco is a creamy white cheese made with skimmed cow’s milk that is somewhere between a cottage cheese and mozzarella. It is often made with lime juice, giving it a citrus flavour and it softens when heated but doesn’t melt.
Requeson is a little like ricotta and made with whole cow’s milk. It is often sold wrapped in fresh cornhusks in the market and has a light taste that isn’t salty. It is most often used for enchiladas, tostadas, cakes, cheese spreads and similar dishes.
Chihuahua is named for the state where it is mostly made and was originally a semi-hard cheese with small holes, similar to the British cheese called Chester. It is covered with cloth and paraffin wax to be sold and has a cheddar like sharp to mild taste, being pale yellow in colour. It is the most popular commercially produced cheese in Mexico.
Mexican manchego is a variation of the Spanish cheese that uses a mixture of cow and goat milk rather than sheep’s milk. It has a very buttery taste and melts easily with an aged version also being available called queso manchego Viejo. It is often grated over dishes.
Cotija is made with pasteurised milk to avoid food borne illnesses and has a texture similar to Parmesan. It pronounces a sour-milk smell and is a light golden colour. Sometimes the cheese is covered in chilli pepper to stop mould while being aged and is used as an accent in dishes as well as to flavour pastas and salads. It is very popular in the US.