Who am I to diss a Brie
I Cotija the world
And the Feta cheese
Everybody’s looking for Stilton
When it comes to queso in Mexico, it’s definitely Cotija (ko-TEE-hah) for me. Because, plain and simple, I think Cotija is the best cheese in Mexico and, not only that, a world class cheese, worthy of comparison with the very best of European cheeses.
How worthy? Well a few years back, in Cremona, Italy, in a competition amongst 500 of the world’s best cheeses, Cotija finished not near the top, but at the top. Cotija was named the best foreign cheese in the world.
Yet, when I get invited to any ex-pat’s homes in San Miguel de Allende, I never see it. Ever.
Perhaps it’s that comparison that everyone makes. Calling it the Mexican Parmesan. So maybe ex-pats just go to Costco and buy the real thing. Parmesan Reggiano, 28 months old, and Ambrosi brand, as good as any Parmesan I’ve ever tasted. And sometimes even cheaper than what I can buy Cotija for. But as similar as Cotija is to Parmesan, I want both.
Cotija arrived in this world about 400 years ago, about the time the Spaniards found gold in the mountains between what are now the states of Jalisco and Michoacan. The name Cotija comes from one of the Michoacan towns where it is produced, a town that looks like a mini San Miguel de Allende and sits at about the same height above sea level.
After the miners settled, they imported dairy cattle from Spain and, during and just after the rainy season, from July to October, when the grass was rich and thick, they began making a cheese. There are about 100 of those independent producers still left today though Cotija is produced commercially throughout Mexico and throughout the year by major dairy producers.
Cheese from Cotija, made by those independents in the Sierras, is commonly called and labelled Cotija de Montana and is made from raw milk like most locally produced artesanal cheeses. The Cotija made for the mass market is produced from pasteurized milk. The curd for Cotija de Montana is milled into small chunks that are then pressed together in the molds. The result is a cheese that is dry in texture and almost impossible to cut without it crumbling.
One of the reasons that ex-pats don’t share the enthusiasm that Mexicans have for Cotija is its saltiness. Cotija is not something you serve on a cheese board with three other cheeses plus figs, grapes or pears on the side. In fact, when I included Cotija served that way in a Mexican cheese tasting a few years ago, Cotija finished dead last out of seven cheeses and I’ll never forget the words of Sally Avant who said, “All I can taste is salt; it might as well be a potato chip.”
Yes, Cotija is very salty. It has almost three times the salt content of Cheddar. In warm climates, salt was the traditional way to preserve cheese and that tradition continues in Michoacan and Jalisco.
So how do you eat and enjoy Cotija? The same way you eat and enjoy almost all Mexican cheeses. Not alone but with other foods. Not as a feature but as an accent. Not on a cheese sandwich but as an extra added attraction on another type of sandwich.
Cotija is the cheese you’ll see in the Ignacio Ramirez Market in San Miguel. There are two stalls there where ladies roll an ear of corn in mayonnaise and then Cotija cheese, sprinkle what they then call elote with lime and dust it with chili. No the corn is not as good as the peaches and cream variety you’ll eat in July in Nebraska. And yes, giving up butter and getting into mayo may take a little mind twisting. But that Cotija wins hands down over plain salt.
Then there’s refried beans. I just can’t imagine them without a snowstorm dusting of crumbled Cotija. And I feel the same about a lot of enchiladas and tostadas without the sour cream and salty tang of Cotija.
Outside of Mexican cuisine, Don Day’s Wife sprinkles it over salads, on pasta, on soups, even on fruit.
Compared to most cheeses (Parmesan being the big exception), Cotija is different in texture as well as taste on the tongue. Rather than being creamy, it’s what you might call pebbly but pebbly in a good way. It doesn’t melt, it simply softens.
Another difference between factory produced and Cotija de Montana is aging. Large manufacturers use enzymes to get their Cotija to market in about a month. The wheels of Cotija de Montana are aged at least 100 days and usually are about seven months old before they reach the retail market.
So how do you recognize an artisanal Cotija from a mass-produced Cotija? The easiest way is if the cheese carries the RDO or Region de Origen sticker. But I’ve had good Cotija without the sticker, possibly because it was discarded when the wheels were first cut (most of it comes in bicep challenging 28 kg. wheels). Good Cotija has a darker color, more pale straw yellow than white. Good Cotija has a thicker, natural rind. Good Cotija is drier, more crumbly. Good Cotija has a strong aroma of sour milk.
In supermarkets such as San Miguel’s La Comer, where they will usually have more than one Cotija for sale, both whole and grated, look for the one called Cotija Anejo and stay away from Cotija Tajo unless you want something more moist that tastes a little like Feta.
Your best place to find Cotija de Montana in San Miguel is at shops like Luna de Queso or at Mercado Sano from the stall of Pedro Munoz Serrato, better known as Pedro El Quesero.
I love cheese. I love eating a lot of cheese. To help me fall asleep at night I count sheep’s milk cheeses. I could eat cheese until the cows come home. The more time I spend in Mexico, the more Mexican cheese I eat. So far, Cotija is my favorite.