Cheese: Quesillo Oaxaca
One of the stops on a food tour in Boyle Heights this week was a particularly delightful surprise: in an otherwise very nondescript building, we found a covered market in the basement that turned out to be a delight for the senses. I picked the two most interesting cheeses I could find at a vendor who sold cheese and meats. The first one was the Quesillo Oaxaca, a white ball that looks like the Mexican version of a Mozzarella, which it sort of is. Apparently some Italian farmer, with the support of the Mexican government, came over in the 1950 and taught locals to produce cheese. Another story has Dominican monks teach the Oaxacans how to make Queso. And then there is the legendary Leobarda Castellanos García, a girl who, back in 1885, was charged with watching the slow heating of the cheese curd, but got distracted until the stuff was overcooked. She panicked, decided to throw hot water on the curd and voilà, thusly was born Mexican pasta filata cheese.
Of course, mozzarella cheese is made by putting the curd in hot water, too, so this accidental screw-up neatly dovetailed with centuries of cheesemaking history…. The pulling of the curd, which gets a little rubbery, and then the kneading into a ball: there are really good reasons to think that at some time, there was an Italian (Dominican or not) that introduced the Oaxacans to this cheese.
Most Mexican cheese is used in cooking, and Queso Oaxacathis is particularly well suited for quesadillas. On its own I thought it tasted very fresh (you are supposed to eat this cheese when it is only a few days old and it comes in a plastic bag complete with a generous helping of liquid), but not as creamy as good mozzarella and a little salty to my taste. I think I will need to try it again, and travel to Oaxaca to do it there. I frankly have no idea where exactly this cheese came from: it is imported, but also produced locally.
I learned a lot more about the Oaxacan cheese from a blog by food historian Rachel Laudan. She writes that there is a Mexican expression: “That’s more tangled than a Oaxacan cheese”. Just how tangled that cheese can get is obvious in the picture: all the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t get that cheese back together again.
The other cheese was semi-hard, with small little irregular holes. It is produced in a Mennonite Colony near Las Virginias, 168 miles south of El Paso in the Mexican State of Chihuahua. The cheesemaker is called La Estrella, and they call the cheese ‘Tipo Chester’. It was mild with a bit of a sharp edge and a tang, quite nice. It’s also called Chihuahua cheese, but it seems that there is quite a variety of different cheeses that fall under that geographical designation, which would not make it very helpful if you were to be looking for a specific cheese. It’s also called Mennonita, because the Mennonite colonies in northern Mexico are known for their cheese-making prowess.
As far as the animals that produce the milk are concerned, Rachel Laudan says the preferred cows in Mexico are crossbreeds between Zebu and Brown Swiss. The latter’s heritage is easy to guess, the former is basically an Indian cow. The great thing about these animals is that they do well in the heat, and that of course is a good thing in much of Mexico.
In the end, neither cheese would rank high on my list of favorites, but I will maybe find some time in these 52 weeks to give Mexican cheeses another shot. In the process of reading up on Oaxaca, I learned they eat chapulines there, grasshoppers, among a host of other interesting and flavorful foods. We’ll need to find a really good Oaxacan restaurant in the Southland to prepare for a trip down there!