Food mirrors culture. The institutions behind taste reflect its region's crafts, landscapes, and traditions. Bread, coffee, and milk a trilogy that narrates day-to-day consumption. Each member of this trilogy is utilised through autochthonous recipes but has also adapted the practices of other cultures. Such is the case of milk, which is transformed into products that either represent the folklore of a scene but can also be adapted to the offerings of a region.
Milk's immortality; cheese, is a matter of comfort and love. It is the individuality of a place. The soul and passion of the crafter that directs its making.
In January 2022, photographer Alexander Pomper and I united to visit five cheese makers over the course of nine days to discover more about the unknown seas of Mexico's impressive culinary scene.
We explored, intending to unlearn our preconceptions of Mexican cheese, knowing our adventure would offer much more than shredded orange cheese for tacos or white melty cheese for quesadillas. This photo essay showcases Mexico's vibrant dairy culture through the work of the creative producers of unique but under-appreciated products outside their country. Our trip began in Oaxaca, trusting the fate of a laissez-faire journey.
Etla, Oaxaca- Zoila Sonia
Etla, a small town in the district of Oaxaca, is the hometown of the famous string cheese quesillo, mistakenly known out of Mexico as “Queso Oaxaca.” Doña Rosa, which is the artistic name for Zoila Sonia, and her siblings were raised on her family’s farm, where they learned all the duties related to running a creamery. “I’m the only daughter following my mother’s work” she says while moving plastic buckets filled with milk, whey, and butter in her courtyard, the space that she now uses as a dairy. Whenever she is absent, due to deliveries, the solidarity of her brother José José and daughter Abigail is exemplified by stepping in to take over production duties. Due to gentrification of an unfettered tourist industry, many Oaxacans are protective of their traditions but Zoila has a different approach; with confidence and care she shares her craft without being exposed. She welcomes a non-family member as her apprentice and is open to expose curious visitors to her craft for a small fee. She is crowned as Etla’s Queen of Quesillo.
Tepeyahualco, Puebla - Florecita Quesera, Flor Balderas
Florecita Balderas is the steward of her family's land, where goats and sheeps roam freely. Her loving work focuses on food education for consumers, raising awareness of the importance of soil health and the presence of microorganisms in milk´s production. In her small make room (a remodeled barn), she manages to craft raw milk cheeses representing the diversity of Mexican cuisine by traditional ingredients such as pulque, huitlacoche and mole. She also re-utilised farm products such as dried pork meat to create salt for some hard cheeses. Her smile is the glue that keeps a community together.
Tezontepec, Puebla- Guadalupe Nativitas
In the arid agricultural area of Tepeyahualco, a dairy guardian, Guadalupe Nativitas, is keeping a tradition alive. She harvests rennet from the goat herd that her son manages in their backyard. Her expert skill, and stomach milk's availability will determine the quality of the rennet. Guadalupe's income relies on the production of queso de aro, a traditional fresh cheese from Tepeyahualco, which is made using natural rennet and raw goat milk. This cheese has historic and economic significance in the region. It's an important ingredient in Chile en Nogada, a Pueblan entrée that celebrates Mexican independence from Spain—but its traditional makers are under threat due to commercially made and easy to purchase imitation which appears to be cheaper for the big demand the dish has.
Querétaro - Quesería Pradales, Monica Alcocer
Monica Alcocer is one of the founders of a small collective of farmers who began the import of Lacaune and Friesian sheep breeds into Mexico. She overcame the challenges of climate difference and landscape adaptation to improve Pradales milk's production by breeding the new ewes with Suffolk sheep, which were already present in the country. Through her fifteen years of experience in cheese production, combined with her passion for sustainable agriculture, Monica specialises in five European-influenced cheeses. The wheels are aged in a stone cave where mould and yeast are encouraged to ripen them naturally. Exposing her work to locals, customers, and employees has been demanding due to the prevalence of fresh cheese culture in Mexico. She encourages the acceptance of her products by opening the doors of her family's farm and exhibiting the process of artisanal cheesemaking, which involves the growth of edible mouldy rinds, providing cheese with flavour and texture.
Querétaro - Del Rebaño, Gabriela Flores
Gabriela Flores took over the leadership of her family’s sheep farm to expand their operation from only milk to artisan cheese. Gaby’s connection to milk is reflected in her handling of unprocessed milk prior to cheesemaking. Instead of using aggressive pumps to transport it, as many dairies do, a crane elevates the liquid from the first floor to the third in order to pour it into the vat through gravity. The workflow she has thoughtfully developed for Del Rebaño’s production involves the design of a creamery based on her experience in cheese-making throughout the United States, creating one of the biggest creameries in the country. Del Rebaño’s facility is capable of producing 1,000 liters of milk simultaneously. One room is designed for hard cheeses and the other for soft-ripened. Gaby combined her interest in fermentation, her love for food/dairy science, and her creativity to form a world-award-winning cheese she affectionately calls OVNI (UFO). Through this conception, she hopes to educate about seasonality in cheese as it is a limited product. She intends to amplify international consumers perception of Mexican cheese by exporting Junipero, a hard cheese inspired by Idiazabal; a basque sheep cheese iconic to the region.
As a cheesemaker myself, I thrive on the inspiration of connecting with the masters who have solved the tricky details of this occupation. Mexico is the proof of a never-ending dance between tradition and innovation. Even though there is currently fresh dairy consumption, this and many other producers are unifying to create a new culture around its work. One that educates on soil, microbiomes, and small handling for better quality. Their upgrade is not just in dairy but also in their cultural identification; willing to expand to be as remarkable as its country´s food culture.
Guatemalan based cheesemaker and writer Mercedes Moreno has been empirically studying the art of cheese since when her grandmother shared this craft with her. Traveling documentation around Europe, United States and México have helped her enrich the knowledge related to agriculture, farming and the philosophy around Natural Cheese and milk´s fermentation.
Mercedes believes cheese is a spiritual practice that englobes the infinity of the present moment.
Alexander Pomper is an American documentary photographer based in Pollenzo, Italy, where he is pursuing his Master in World Food Cultures and Mobility at UNISG. He focuses on farmers and producers who are working to preserve culture through traditional foodways. You can follow his work at @alexanderpomper.