In a building of vivid saffron—perhaps 50 feet from where a man sits roasting coffee beans in a cast iron skillet, and just beyond the pot of frijoles simmering over a wood stove made of bricks and an old metal grill—we find them: Maria Elena and her helpers. With a large silver spoon, Maria Elena stirs the pot of queso cocido, or “cooked cheese,” warming over low heat. It’s already reached the stage where she can pull it upwards as if it were taffy, and the three boys helping her—who range in age from about 7 to 15—busily pat out little circles of queso onto the surface of a cracked tablecloth scattered with a motif of girasols. The resulting rounds are slightly smaller than a small flour tortilla—perfect for layering into quesadillas.
Maria Elena pulls some of the cheese from the pan and deftly rolls it onto the table. Flipping her spoon to use the handle as a knife, she slices hunks from the end for the boys, pausing to place one into my hands. It’s hot—nearly finger-burning—and though it may look like taffy, it’s softer and less prone to tearing. I pull pieces from the end for my traveling companions. I’ve only doled out a few before I have to stuff a glob of the warm cheese into my own mouth. Oily and slick, it goes down in a single, marvelous gulp.
All morning we’d been driving south from Nogales along Highway 15 on a quest to see Sonoran cheese being made. At the dairy up the road—our ostensible destination—we were turned away by security. The boss wasn’t in and we didn’t have an appointment. No matter. We pressed on, and five minutes down the road stopped at a tiny restaurant where my friend Bill said he has been stopping for years. One time, Bill said, he and his wife arrived late at night to find the proprietress, Doña Maria, who was then very old, asleep in a chair. They woke her up. She opened one eye, gestured to the stove and where the tortillas were kept, closed it, and went back to sleep.
We were hopeful that on this visit we would find whoever was cooking awake and able to give us some insight into the local cheese. And indeed the next Doña Maria, daughter to the previous one (and mother-in-law to cheesemaker Maria Elena), greeted us readily when we poked our heads through the establishment’s doorway. At 80, she’s a diminutive woman with a halo of white-gray hair and a gloriously wrinkled face who shuffles about her kitchen with remarkable alacrity on a pair of bowed legs. When we asked how the queso for the quesadillas was made, Doña Maria seized a bowl filled with already-made cheese.
“Aquí está la leche,” she said, pantomiming her way through adding the vegetable rennet—purchased from a local veterinarian—to the milk so that it coagulates. Once the curds have formed, she explained, they’re placed in a colander to drain. Next the curds are heated—she moved her fist in circles over her pretend pot—until they form the stretchy taffy threads. At the end of her explanation, she suspended a round of cheese on her two thumbs for our inspection, holding her palms open toward us with the circle of cheese, ivory and nearly paper thin, suspended between them.
Dairying was unknown in Mexico until the Spaniards arrived with their cows, sheep, and goats. With the animals came recipes for making hard cheeses such as Manchego, from the windswept, sheep-studded plateau of La Mancha, and soft cheeses such as Burgos, from around the cathedral town of the same name in the northern reaches of Castile and León. Over time such recipes morphed, coming out the other side of history as quesos that may carry something of their European forebears, yet are uniquely Mexican.
There is, for example, panela, a smooth, white, moist cheese often sold in baskets the way the people around the Mediterranean have done for millennia; or cotija, a hard, dry grating cheese frequently compared to Parmesan; Oaxaca, a stretched-curd cheese pulled into ropes that are then wound into balls (think mozzarella); and, of course, Manchego, though the Mexican version is typically made with milk of cows and not sheep. Another such cheese is queso fresco, a round of pressed white curd reminiscent of queso Burgos. Versions of queso fresco can be found throughout the country, and this is quite true in Sonora, where men hawk it in highway medians. As the name implies, queso fresco is typically aged for a matter of days and is meant to be consumed quickly. It’s exactly the sort of cheese you’d expect to find in such a hot place where there isn’t a need for large-format, aged rounds meant to make it through harsh winters.
What you wouldn’t expect to find here is cows—yet you’d be wrong. Despite efforts to promote sheep and goats—animals that would be better suited to the arid clime—cows remain the favored animal for cheesemaking across Mexico. The cows themselves are mostly rangy, mongrel breeds, amalgamations of Herefords and Holsteins and Jerseys and who knows what else. Under the cottonwoods down along the river bottoms not far from Doña Maria’s place, a motley herd of them stood placidly munching hay behind fences cobbled together from branches and barbed wire. The raw milk from such animals is what gives many Mexican cheeses their rustic, lactic flavor, and queso fresco is a good example: It’s a straightforward cheese: honest, plain, and tending toward salty.[sam id=1]
And queso fresco was also essentially what Maria Elena, in the saffron-colored building behind the restaurant, was using to make her queso cocido—which after queso fresco is the second type of cheese you’re most likely to run across in Sonora, followed by requesón, or Mexican ricotta. The hunk of fresh curd sat in a pool of yellow whey at the bottom of a large, silver pot on the stove next to her. In addition to rennet, she explained, she also adds a bit of sour milk to the mix—a traditional way of introducing starter bacteria. She pulled some of the curd from the larger pan and placed it into her pan over the heat, demonstrating the process Doña Maria had mimicked earlier.
Maria Elena sank her fingers into the whiteness, kneading. Within a minute or two the mountains of curd begin to settle and join, and she was pulling strands of melted cheese from the bottom of the pan to the top of the heap. On the other side of the table one of the boys paused to wipe sweat from his brow. In the States, kids their age might have been sitting in a corner, glued to their phones. Yet these boys laughed and ribbed one another, seeming content as they waited for Maria Elena to once again flip her spoon around and cut off hunks for them to form into the slippery, buttery rounds.
When we ask, Maria Elena tells us they make about 650 cheeses each day, which last a few days in the restaurant. You used to be able to find women like her all over Europe, making batches of cheese in their kitchens. It’s what some describe derisively as “bathtub” cheese, and it’s disappeared virtually everywhere, even in the tradition-rich countryside of France where these days even the smallest cheese operations are awash in regulation stainless steel equipment and state-of-the-art drying racks. Here in Sonora, though, the old ways persist.
Cheeses, at their simplest and best, are an expression not only of the milk—that “soul of the soil” as one cheese monger so famously put it—but also of the places and people who make them. Which means that from now on, for me, queso cocido will always be the old Doña Maria snoring in her chair, Maria Elena and her boys around their queso-filled table strewn with sunflowers, and, most especially, the stooped figure of the halo-haired Doña Maria, standing in her kitchen and holding out her circle of cheese like the tiny benediction that it is. ✜
Kathe Lison is the author of a travel narrative about French cheese, The Whole Fromage, and an as-yet unpublished memoir,
Part of the World. She lives and eats in Tucson.