Guide to Mexican Cheese: Part 1

by Allyson Williams on February 8, 2012 · 9 comments

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With all the talk about cheese on the Jaltemba Bay Folk Forum lately, I decided to enlist my good friend Rosalva to enlighten me about what types of cheeses are available in our area, where the best places are to purchase them and how they are most often used by the locals. What I discovered was more than I expected and the experience is one I won’t soon forget.

When I have questions about Mexican food and ingredients, Rosalva has been my “go-to gal” for nearly 20 years. Our first stop was at the Carniceria “Carito” in La Peñita where we met with Sra. Maria de Jesus Ibarria. She makes and sells Panela, Queso Fresco and Jocoque, all of which are made from fresh cow’s milk and are all natural (no additives or preservatives).

My friend, Rosalva, holding a sample of the Panela cheese made and sold at Carniceria “Carito” in La Peñita.

Rosalva and I talked to Sra. Maria for about a half hour. I had a ton of questions, and she was willing to answer them even though she was busy.
A few days later when I sat down to compile my notes to write this story, I realized that I didn’t have quite enough information so I headed back to La Peñita to see Sra. Maria. Amazingly, she graciously invited David and I to come back so we could watch the cheese-making process.

We arrived at our scheduled meeting time and Sra. Maria quickly got to work.

Sra. Maria adds cuajo, a microbial enzyme, to the cow’s milk to help break down the protein compounds in the milk. This allows the liquid to separate and the proteins to form into cheese or curd. She has to use more cuajo during the warm months because of the humidity in the air. She lets the milk and cuajo mixture sit for about 2 hours until it gets firm to the touch. Then, she pours the mixture into several rectangular plastic baskets to allow the liquid to settle out.

To make Panela, she transfers the mixture into small round plastic baskets. She rotates the cheese every 20-30 minutes, twice on each side. As you can see, the baskets leave an attractive woven pattern on the cheese.

Panela is a slightly sweet, soft and moist white cheese made from cow’s milk. Panela is traditionally eaten daily as a snack or in tortas (sandwiches).

Sra. Maria has run her Carniceria for 44 years. She has been making cheese for over 30 years. Incredibly, she makes Panela every single day and Queso Fresco a few times each week.

She has lots of wonderful stories about how times have changed. She is a lovely lady, and as you can see she enjoyed the afternoon as much as we did.

We were thrilled when she took us out back to make Queso Fresco. She puts the same curded cow’s milk used to make the Panela into a cheesecloth bag. Then, she squeezes the bag on a metate (a grinding tool) to remove all the liquid.

When the consistency is “just right”, she dumps the cheese into a large bowl and adds a generous amount of sea salt.

Using the metate, she pulverizes the salt crystals and aerates the cheese to give it a wonderfully smooth texture.

Sra. Maria then hand presses the cheese into round metal molds, one batch at a time.

Today’s batch made four beautiful rounds of Queso Fresco (shown in the first photo), one of which we bought and nearly consumed on the way home. Queso Fresco (fresh cheese) has a surpisingly smooth texture and the flavor is slightly salty and savory. It is commonly used on frijoles (beans), taquitos and tortas (sandwiches).

Stop by Carniceria “Carito” in La Peñita to buy some of her fresh, homemade and all natural Mexican cheeses. You’ll be glad you did.

» Panela: $50 pesos per kilo
» Queso Fresco: $30 pesos per piece

And be sure to watch for Part 2 in the next few weeks.

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