Today, continuing with my posts related to Mexico’s emblematic ingredients, I will talk about Queso Cotija, my favorite cheese in the world :).
This cheese is sooooo normal to me: in my 23 years of life… there has always been Queso Cotija in the fridge, its like eggs… or milk. My family use this cheese en everything: with beans, with soup, with meat, as chicharrón de queso, even as a snack, with a little glass of mezcal. My mom always gets angry, because she said that we eat cheese as mice, and that is a very expensive taste (although my mom is from Michoacán, she grew up in a city where this type of cheese is not very common, so she always complains). See below how Queso Cotija looks like.
Geographical zone for Queso Cotija is 2,400 km², in the Sierra de Jalmich. This zone is between two states: Jalisco and Michoacán (♥), including towns like Santa María del Oro, Cotija and Tocumbo. It is very salty cheese, and has a really strong flavor.
So, traditionally, Queso Cotija was made by small farmers, isolated from the world, that lived near La Sierra. Because there was no easy communication between populations (I mean, no roads, no electricity, etc), they had to do everything by their own. They cultivated some maize to feed their calves, and they milked their cows in order to obtain raw material to produce Queso Cotija. Now this is a 100% artesanal Cotija Cheese! (“artesanal” is very popular word this days, really overestimated.. sometimes the deliberated use of this word bothers me!).
But then, public infrastructure appeared: roads, electricity and technology, so new producers emerged with not-so artesanal Cotija Cheese, “Queso tipo Cotija”. This new producers of cheese bought the milk from a milk producer (sometimes was not even from the region) and began to make cheese in a more industrial way, without considering traditional methods, so obviously prices of Queso tipo Cotija were lower than traditional ones. This is how traditional producers began to disappear, because they couldn’t compete with low prices.
From 1970 to 2000, Queso Cotija suffered a big decline: prices were very low, about 20-30 pesos per kg (about 1.5 dollars per kilogram). People were not willing to pay a lot of money for the traditional Queso Cotija, because they didn’t value it.. and this happens a lot. Mexico is a country that tends to devaluate of local products and overvalue foreign products. So, it was no longer profitable too keep doing Queso Cotija the traditional way, I mean, why bother if people didn’t care? This may be sad, but its a very common issue with a lot of national products.
Fortunately, local appreciation of Queso Cotija began to change between 1990-2000. A lot of people began to worry that all the tradition of this product was about to disappear; so some of the producers, along with scientists and workers from culture departments began to create strategies to preserve these traditions and encourage them again. By 2005, after years of big efforts, they obtained the Collective Mark distinctive (Marca Colectiva). Yet producers and scientists and culture workers originally wanted to obtain the Origin Denomination distinctive (Denominación de Origen), a Collective Mark was a good start.
In 2006, this group of people that were continuously promoting protection of Queso Cotija, sent a local producer named José Vargas Barajas who never in his life had traveled more than 300 km, to a world championship of Cheese, in Cremona, Italy. Imagine this ! A very humble man, traveling with a 20 kg piece of Queso Cotija to Italy. And, to the surprise of many, this men won the award for Best Foreign Cheese, italian people loved Queso Cotija! See below a photo of a 2 kg Queso Cotija.
This was the time were people began to look at this product in a very different way, and of course, prices began to raise. Now, Queso Cotija price is about 70 to 100 pesos per kg ( almost 6 dlls per kg). A lot of promotion around Queso Cotija started, they even began the “Feria regional del Queso Cotija” (Regional Fair of Queso Cotija).
The thing is that here, where I live (at the North of Mexico) of course no one sells real Queso Cotija, so, as my beans definitely don’t taste the same without this cheese, my father often sends me a 2 kg piece of cheese directly from my beloved Michoacán. I have to manage really well my portions so that it last til the next time my father sends. Some of you may think that this is purely a whim of me to ask my father to send me cheese from 1,000 km away, but it is really something that I enjoy a lot!
There is no recipe in here. I even think its hard to taste this cheese outside Mexico (we still have some issues trying to solve de *GMP in order to export Queso Cotija, but we’ll get there!). But if you happen to be in Mexico, specifically in Michoacán, please try it! I recommend you to taste it with all the traditional food Michoacán has to offer: as a snack with a glass of mezcal, with huchepos, corundas, morisqueta…
*GPM: Good Manufacturing Practices, these are required to maximize food safety, and they are essential in order to export any product.
Porreón T. (2007). El queso Cotija, México. Consultoría realizada para FAO e IICA, CIESTAAM, Universidad Autónoma de Chapingo. http://goo.gl/jjnH8x
González J. (2014). El queso Cotija busca cruzar fronteras. El economista. http://goo.gl/BnNmGL
Hernández R. (2008). Queso Cotija, en defensa de una identidad. El universal. http://goo.gl/8HJYlR