Cheese is not something that most people associate with Costa Rica. It’s not even something that most Costa Ricans’ associate with Costa Rica. Queso fresco is the most popular cheese in CR and really across Central America- it goes by other names but we know it in an American supermarket as Farmer’s cheese. If you are offered cheese on a menu nine times out of ten it will be Queso fresco- so if you’re coming to Costa Rica in hopes of expanding your cheese palette, you’ve been badly misled. In the States Queso fresco comes like a twisted cable of stringy white cheese- much like Mozzarella just not in ball form and it goes from mild and milky to sour very quickly. Here it comes in blocks, it shares the same squeaky texture of Halloumi and to be honest is pretty bloody tasteless. Unless it’s fried, when it becomes Queso frito (fried cheese). Up until recently if you bought a pizza in Central America it would be Queso fresco and not Mozzarella- which is interesting to me as Queso fresco does not melt like Mozzarella making for quite a solid pizza. It does however make an excellent grilled cheese sandwich.
One of the things Don and I have taken great pleasure in doing on this trip is food tours- who would have figured! In a small mountain region in Costa Rica called Monteverde we visited the Monteverede cheese factory. It was set up by a handful of Alabama Quakers in the 1950’s, who actually named the town which means Green hills. In a land consisting of cloud forests, insects, bumpy roads and afternoon thunderstorms, they did what they knew how to- which happened to be making cheese. They are the only company in Costa Rica to produce cheeses other than Queso fresco- including: Cheddar, Parmesan, Edam, Gouda, Emmental, Swiss (all legally named in CR as they are not members of the EU). The cheese is actually quite good- although it is not exported as they are such a small factory, and I doubt that they could compete worldwide. Instead they market themselves in tourist towns where they find people fed up with rice and beans and are desperate for a cheese sandwich. They happened to find Don and I on one such day.
The process of the cheese making was fascinating- from the milk coming in daily, delivered by over two hundred farmers from across Costa Rica to the actual pressing of the cheese to remove the whey and the storage. What was most interesting to me is that like all great recipes, cheese starts with a basic recipe or formula and variations on that are what make for different cheeses. Those variations are in the form of bacteria cultures added and the length of time and temperature at which it is left to mature- and that’s really about it.
The initial process at Monteverde takes about six hours, and with three vats to make cheese they can make up to six types of cheeses a day. The first part of the process is to test the milk, which is done taking samples on petri dishes before any milk is purchased from the farmer. The milk that has the highest butterfat content and least amount of bacteria is given the best price. Jersey Cows are the favoured breed in Costa Rica although generally farmers will use both Holsteins and Jerseys and blend the two because Holsteins produce much more milk, though at not such a high quality. Milk found with antibiotics is rejected and the farmer is banned from selling milk for the next month. It’s funny how a country such has Costa Rica has higher health standards than the US.
The healthy milk is then pasturized to kill any bacteria and is transfered to large vats which are used to separate the curds from the whey. The ratio here is about 10:1 which means that for every ten pounds of milk you get only one pound of cheese- now you know why it’s so expensive to buy! The whey in this plant is not wasted but used to feed their pigs at another factory down the road- which is apparently rather good for them. I love the lack of waste! The curds are removed by hand and fill molds which are then pressed. The pressing is what forms the shape of the cheese and also serves to remove any excess whey. It then becomes a matter of waiting for the cheese to mature- which in the case of Queso is a matter of days and for Cheddar a minimum of three months.
And what about processed cheese- well in Costa Rica processed cheese really means a blend of cheeses, which are scraps cut away and then melted down together. In the US processed cheese is an entirely different thing- with very little to do with cheese or anything natural.
And there you have it- say cheese!