The more years I spend in Mexico, the more I try to celebrate the red, white and green, particularly when it comes to what I eat. There is one Mexican food though I have a problem with and that is cheese. And that really bothers me.
It seems to me that almost every Mexican dish I eat has some cheese. Even if it’s just a little sprinkled on top. Yet when I checked the stats, I was shocked, Mexico has one of the lowest per capita cheese consumptions of any of the world’s major countries. How low? Mexicans eat only a third as much cheese as Canadians and a quarter as much as Americans.
I grew up in Canada with European cheeses. Old cheeses. Strong tasting cheeses. Hearty cheeses. Tangy cheeses. Even what Don Day’s Wife calls socksy cheeses.
Most dairy products in Mexico on the other hand are bland, mild, some even bordering on tasteless so my conversion from cheeses to quesos has been slow, very slow.
One Mexican cheese I have grown to appreciate and eat often is cotija (you can read about it at http://dondayinsma.com/2017/05/24/sweet-dreams-made-cheese/). Another cheese that is growing on me slowly but very surely is Chihuahua Menonita. Especially as I learn where to source the older, better versions. Chihuahua is not what you’d call an oomphy cheese, it’s not even as strong in taste as a medium Cheddar but it has its place, particular in places like a salami and cheese sandwich, on a tuna melt or even on a burger.
I not only like the interesting taste of Chihuahua Menonita, I also like that there’s a taste of interesting history in its background. The Old Colony Mennonites were originally from the German Alps. In 1789, they migrated to Russia; however, in 1874, when the Russian government revoked their exemption from military service, it was time to pack their wagons again, this time for Manitoba in Central Canada. The next problem the Mennonites had was language. In 1922, the provincial government ruled that only English, not German could be taught in their schools. The solution was to move again; this time south to Mexico where they were promised the right to conscientiously object to military service and to be schooled in other than the Spanish language.
The agricultural possibilities of Chihuahua, Mexico’s largest state, were especially attractive and, within a few years, about three thousand Mennonites had settled in a triangular area surrounded generally by Cuauhtémoc, Creel and Guachochic.
“Within fifteen years of their arrival”, according to William Coupon, in the April 1989 issue of Texas Monthly, “they had become Mexico’s most productive small farmers.”
That reputation had been built mainly on the production of a mild off-white cheese with a slightly sour and salty flavor that becomes a little sharper as it ages.
Over the years, the cheese has changed somewhat as descriptions that I have found in older publications refer to it being wrapped in cloth and dipped in paraffin wax but I’ve never seen it that way. I’ve also seen it referred to as being made in balls but I’ve only seen it occasionally in blocks but almost always in wheels.
Early references also refer to it possessing small holes but I’ve found only one modern version that has this characteristic.
In Los Quesos Mexicanos Genuinos, published in 2008, four Mexican academics got together to document the history of Mexican cheese. They refer to Chihuahua Menonita as made in the form of a flattened cylinder of different dimensions (from 10 cm high by 25-30 cm diameter) and weight (from 1 kg up to 10 kg) and that is what I have found most, though often already cut into wedges and sealed in plastic when you see it at retail.
If you’re even more of a turophile (yes, I learned a new word for cheese lover) than I am and interested in the nitty gritty details of how Chihuahua cheese is made, this is from cooksinfo.com: Whole cow’s milk is heated to 149 F (65 C) for half an hour. The temperature is then lowered to 95 F (35 C) and a bacteria is added, along with annatto for colouring. Rennet is added to curdle the cheese, which takes about 40 minutes. The curd is then cut, salted, put into moulds and pressed.
Mexico unfortunately does little to protect the denomination of their cheeses so the Chihuahua cheese you purchase may come from a Mennonite community in Chihuahua, may come from somewhere else in Chihuahua, may come from somewhere else in Mexico, or may come from some other country altogether such as Uruguay, Argentina or…get this…even New Zealand.
So what does Chihuahua cheese actually taste like? What other cheese can you compare it to? Surprisingly, there are a lot of references to Chihuahua cheese being compared to Chester cheese, and not just being compared to it, but actually being called Chester, even in the Mennonite communities. The problem with that is I’ve never ever heard of Chester cheese.
It might be a mispronunciation of Cheshire cheese but Cheshire is a hard, dry, crumbly cheese that is considerably different from Chihuahua. My guess is it’s an accidental variation of Cheddar, a cheese that Chihuahua does have some similarities to when it’s young in form, texture and taste.
There’s not a lot of Chihuahua Menonita to be found in San Miguel de Allende. And a lot of it is to be avoided. So the last thing I want you to do after reading this is to run out to the supermarket and buy Chihuahua cheese for, just like there are absolutely wonderful medium and old Cheddar cheeses which are full of gentle nuances and character, there are also cello packs of sliced yellow waxy rubber that also carry the word Cheddar that I will only accept if that’s absolutely all a restaurant has to put on a burger.
It’s difficult to guide you as to what to look for in the packaging. As a general rule I would look for the words Queso Chihuahua Menonita but not just the words Queso Chihuahua or Queso Chihuahua stilo Menonita. I would also look for cheese that’s drier in texture and less yellow in color.
Also look for the words “elaborado con leche de vaca 100% pasteurizada”. Though that may seem obvious, something I read recently by Rachel Laudan, author of Cuisine and Empire says that, “…the taste for cheese has boomed so much that to satisfy the demand for inexpensive cheese, half the “cheese” on sale and consumed in Mexico is artificial cheese.”
My two specific Queso Menonita recommendations in San Miguel de Allende are first a cheese that you’ll find at Los Rehiletes in Mercado Sano on Ancha de San Antonio and also at their shop on the Ancha at the corner of San Antonio.
It’s called Campo Holandes and I especially like it when it’s melted. It works great in quesadillas, in a queso fundido with chorizo and on a tuna melt topped with a very ripe Roma tomato.
My number one Queso Chihuahua Menonita recommendation is sold by Luna de Queso at either their Jesus or Salida a Celaya locations where they’ll find it for you in the cooler on the right and will cut it from the round to order.
It’s dryer than any of the others, a little more pale in color, and even has some of those small holes that are mentioned in some of the historic descriptions of the Chihuahua Menonita.
This Chihuahua definitely doesn’t need melting to shine and my favorite way to eat it is by putting a sizeable wedge on a Cumpanio baguette with Genoa salami and a generous piece of crisp Romaine.
The richer taste, I suspect, is the result of aging and it makes all the difference.
So would Chihuahua Menonita win a chest full of medals and ribbons in an international contest? No, I doubt it. But I do believe it is one of Mexico’s very best domestic cheeses. And if you want to buy and eat Mexican like I do, I suggest you give Queso Chihuahua Menonita a serious try.