If you live in the United States, you have more than likely seen packaged cheese labeled 'queso tipo Cotija' (Cotija-style cheese) in your supermarket. You may actually have purchased queso tipo Cotija to crumble on your frijoles refritos (refried beans) or your enchiladas, but have you ever asked yourself why the cheese is Cotija-style? Have you ever wondered what Cotija might be, and what a genuine Cotija cheese is, given that the product in your supermarket is labeled Cotija style?
The Jalmich region of Michoacán is located in the westernmost part of the state along the border with the state of Jalisco. This small area is the región de origen (region of origin) of genuine queso Cotija. Click on the image for a larger view, including the small map in the bottom right-hand corner. Map courtesy Esteban Barragán López.
For starters, Cotija is the largest town (current population about 20,000) in the Jalmich region of far-western Michoacán, where this delicious cheese originated soon after the Spanish brought cattle to what would become Mexico.
Defining what makes a genuine Cotija cheese is a bit more difficult. For many years, local producers have worked diligently to preserve, protect, and promote this well-known but little understood traditional product of Michoacán. Brands of Cotija cheese that are factory-produced or which are produced outside the narrow parameters of the Jalmich region are those that must be called Cotija-style cheese.
General Lázaro Cárdenas del Río, president of Mexico from 1934-1940, introduced hardy Cebú (Brahma) cattle to Mexico in 1925. He believed that the Cebú was ideal for both the tropical and arid regions of the República. His son, Cuahutémoc Cárdenas Solórzano, continues to raise Cebú cattle in Apatzingán, in Michoacán's Tierra Caliente (hot inland lowlands).
Brahma cattle, now cross-bred with Mexican-born or Swiss cattle, need four years to come to maturity and breed. The cows can produce three to four liters of high-quality milk per day while nursing a calf. Cotija cheese producers milk their cows only in the morning. They make cheese from the rich milk only during the June to November rainy season, when the cattle feed on local grasses.
Production of traditional Cotija cheese is limited specifically to the Jalmich region of western Michoacán. Two hundred producers in that area continue to make Cotija cheese. Ten liters of milk are needed to make one kilo of cheese; each cheese weighs in at 20 kilos or more. One nursing cow can produce enough milk during the rainy season to make a single cheese.
At the cava (aging cellar), each cheese is marked with the date that it was made. The cava is strictly controlled for temperature and the intrusion of bacteria. When Mexico Cooks! visited, the producers required us to walk through a disinfecting shoe bath prior to entering the sealed cava.
The distinctive characteristics of genuine Cotija cheese are the following:
- Elaborated uniquely on farms in the mountains of Jalmich, Michoacán
- Made from fresh whole leche bronca (raw milk)
- Milk from free-range cattle
- From cows that are nursing their calves
- Prepared with natural rennet from the stomachs of ruminants
- Prepared with artesanal sea salt from Colima
- Production limited to each year's rainy season (June to November)
- Farm-produced and aged in a cava (aging cellar) under strict sanitary regimentation for a minimum of three months
- 100% natural
Every afternoon, local farmers hand wrap milk solids in henequen-fiber cloth. Producers initially squeeze the milk solids by hand to drain off excess whey. The cheese is formed in lightweight parota wood molds; then the makers place heavy stones on the molds to continue pressing the cheese. The whey (liquids that run off as the pressed cheese becomes solid) can be used to make requesón, similar to ricotta or cottage cheese, or it can be fed to the farmer's pigs. Eighteen hours later, the cheese is removed from the mold. Two weeks afterward, the wooden belt around the cheese is removed. The cheese continues to age and can be sliced after about three months.
José Luis Barragán Valencia, director of sales for the Mesón del Queso Cotija, examines a cava shelf filled with aging cheeses. The dated cheeses in the cava range from those that are newly-made to others that are about four years old.
In 2005, Mexico awarded this traditional local cheese with the first Marca Colectiva (Collective Mark) ever given to a Mexican artisanal food product. This distinction recognized the role of the particular Jalmich region, its cheese producers, and the crucial work of the Mesón del Queso Cotija in preserving traditional cheese production. The designation is similar to that of products like Champagne and Roquefort, which enjoy the coveted PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) status. Much like the Mexican Marca Colectiva, the PDO also refers to specific geographic regions in Europe where certain protected products are produced.
In addition to the sought-after and prestigious Marca Colectiva designation, artisan queso Cotija from the Mesón del Queso Cotija won first prize in 2006 in Italy, in a championship of high-quality cheeses from all over the world.
Due to current United States Food and Drug Administration restrictions on cheeses made of unpasteurized milk, it is not yet possible to export this artisan-made queso Cotija to the USA. However, the cheese is widely available in Mexico, sold in such diverse locations as the prestigious Palacio de Hierro department stores, Restaurante Nicos and La Nicolasa organic grocery shop in Mexico City, and Soriana supermarkets all over Mexico, among other venues.
Breakfast at the Mesón del Queso Cotija: queso Cotija, of course! In addition, we relished plates of delicious fresh fruit picked on the premises, eggs from the Mesón's chickens, avocados from trees on the property, home-prepared chilaquiles with thick cream and cheese, requesón frito (cottage-type cheese fried with chile, onions, and tomato), and cafe de olla (coffee, flavored with cinnamon and sweetened with piloncillo (Mexican brown sugar).
What hard work it is to be Mexico Cooks!. There is always some fascinating place to visit, and always some wonderful food to experience. Come along! We'd be delighted to show you our insider secrets.
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