Why Mexico Isn’t Central America, And Other Things I Learned From Writing A Book About Cheese

cheeseExactly one year ago, I was embroiled in final edits on my first book, “Cheese for Dummies.” It’s a 408-page, comprehensive primer on all things cheese, including an extensive geography section.

I was reviewing the “America’s” chapter, when I saw that my editor had taken the liberty of relocating Mexico from North America, and lumped it with Central America. Baffled, I spent the next hour researching, then polled my Gadling teammates; we are, after all, a well-traveled bunch. The consensus, of which I was already certain from years spent backpacking throughout Latin America: my editor was wrong, wrong, wrong.

It was at the urging of my Gadling colleagues, with whom I engaged in a lengthy discussion about the topic at hand, that I decided to write this article. They thought it raised some interesting arguments about geopolitics and cultural differences within a given region, and found it fascinating that cheese was the conduit. As Heather Poole put it, “Maybe you thought your book was about cheese, when really it’s about the people who eat cheese.”

Before my editor would concede, I had to present a compelling argument as to why there’s no way in hell Mexico is part of Central America. That’s like saying all Latin American countries are the same. Yes, there’s a common language in most instances, but the dialectical differences, indigenous languages and slang are vastly different.

Colonization may also play a commonality in most Latin countries, but the indigenous cultures and various immigrants differ, which can be seen in language, art, folklore and cuisine. There are also extreme variations in geography (known as terroir, in food or wine parlance) and climate, often within the same country.

Dairy wasn’t a part of traditional Mesoamerican culture. The Spanish conquistadors brought cows, sheep, and goats to the New World and introduced dairying and ranching to Mexico. Besides the Spanish influence, in more recent times, cheesemaking throughout Mexico, Central and South America is believed to have been inspired by immigrants from Italy, and Northern and Eastern Europe.cheeseWith regard to cheese, the majority of Latin America (which, for the purposes of this article, refers to Mexico, Central and South America) produces and eats cheese as a subsistence food in rural areas. Most families own a single cow, or sometimes goat, and rely upon the animal’s milk as an essential source of protein. Urbanites, regardless of social class, have access to the same crappy processed cheese we do here in the States; specialty cheese shops are a rarity in most of these countries, for various socioeconomic reasons.

Peru and Bolivia, which suffer from extreme poverty and are largely rural, primarily produce fresh, simple cheeses like queso fresco. These cheeses can be consumed quickly due to the lack of refrigeration, and provide an immediate source of nutrition and income. Venezuela and Brazil, with their largely tropical climates, also rely upon mostly fresh cheeses, some of them highly salted for preservation. Cheese production in Central America is also mostly about fresh cheese, the result of poverty and climate.

Argentina, a more industrialized nation, is one of the world’s leading producers of Parmesan, an aged cow’s milk cheese that approximates Italian Parmigiano-Reggiano. This is due to Argentina’s large population of Italian immigrants. Aged cheese production is only feasible if there’s a facility to store it as it matures, and, usually, an additional source of immediate income – such as fresh cheese.

Ecuador (photo at right), which has a high proportion of Swiss immigrants, also produces a handful of aged, alpine-style cheeses, in addition to fresh cheeses (being on the equator, much of the country is tropical rainforest and not conducive to aging dairy products).
milking
Mexico is one of the few countries in the America’s that has a long, distinguished cheese history, and is one of the world’s largest consumers of cheese, despite a relative lack of diversity in styles and varieties. In recent decades, an artisan cheese movement has developed, and parts of Querétaro, Chiapas, Tabasco and Michoacán are major cheese-producing states. Oaxaca, Mexico’s culinary capital, is the producer of one of its most famous cheeses, Queso Oaxaca, a string cheese also known as quesillo. Cotija, from Central Mexico, is the country’s most renown cheese.

Any book on food, regardless of topic, is going to acknowledge differences due to the terroir and microclimates of a given region. Northern Italy, for example, produces rice and dairy in its lush pastures and fields, while drought- and poverty-stricken Southern Italy has a notable absence of cow’s milk, because sheep fare better on sparse vegetation. As in the North, pasta is also a staple, but it’s eggless.

Writing a book on cheese taught me far more than just how to argue with my editor about where Mexico is located. I learned more about world history, geography and politics in the year it took me to write my book than I did from 12 years of school and earning two degrees.

History has always been my poorest subject, and I’ve only ever been able to learn it by traveling. I was staggered by how much knowledge I’d gained just from writing about cheese.

I think two of the most visible examples of what cheese has taught me came shortly after I submitted my manuscript. I was watching “Jeopardy!” with a friend, and answered a question – that would previously have left me scratching my head – by screaming out (correctly), “What are Visigoths, Alex!” My friend stared at me, flabbergasted.

The other incident occurred during a discussion with some friends about why Spanish cheese doesn’t have a greater foothold in the U.S. (something that’s rapidly changing, by the way). I explained that it was the cumulative effect of the Spanish War, two World Wars, and Franco’s rule, which suppressed the country’s agricultural and commercial progress.

It’s not my intention to sound like an obnoxious smartypants. I’m just incredulous that something as simple (yet complex) as fermented milk made me a more educated, well-rounded person. I’ve always believed that travel is the best educator, but by writing a book on a seemingly limited topic, I’ve also learned that food is, indeed, more than just mere nourishment.

[Photo credits: cheese, Flickr user marimbalamesa; spray cheese, Flickr user xiaming; milking, Laurel Miller]

Exploring The Culture And History Of Peru Through Food

food While not widely known as a food destination, Peru is one of my all-time favorite countries for delicious cuisine. Not only is eating out in the country extremely affordable, the dishes are often influenced by other cultures and time periods. Moreover, Peru’s unique landscape of coast and Andes Mountains allows for fresh ingredients and delicious food staples – like potatoes, corn and quinoa – to be used in a variety of ways.

Dining Tips:

  • Eat at local restaurants, and take advantage of their set menus. You’ll usually get a soup, entree, juice and sometimes a desert for less than $3.
  • Don’t drink the tap water.
  • The sauce that is usually put on the table is aji, and is spicy. Try it before pouring it all over your food.
  • If you get the chance to eat in a local’s home, take it. This is how you’ll really get to learn about the culture through food. You can do a homestay, or take a tour that includes a lunch in a home, like Urban Adventures’ Sacred Valley Tour in Cuzco, Peru.
  • While tipping isn’t expected – except for 10 percent in very upscale venues – it is appreciated.

For a better idea of cuisine in Peru, check out the gallery below.

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10 Things To Do In Cuzco, Peru, That Don’t Involve Visiting Inca Ruins

pisaq marketWhen visiting Cuzco, Peru, you will be overwhelmed by the amount of tourism agencies and street vendors selling tours to Machu Picchu, Moray, Ollantaytambo, Sacsayhuaman, Q’enqo, Puca Pucara, Templo de la Luna and the various other Inca ruins. While seeing these sites is an important part of the culture and getting to know the area, there are days you may want to do something different. Here were some of the things I enjoyed doing when in Cuzco that didn’t involve Inca ruins.

Explore Pisaq Market

Pisaq Market (shown right) sells handicrafts, jewelry, minerals, herbs, spices and local foods and is the biggest market in Cuzco. Sunday is the best time to go, when locals from hours away come to attend church and buy and sell goods. This is also when you can see locals dressed in traditional clothing from the church procession that takes place in the town. Even if you don’t buy anything it’s a good way to learn about the local way of life, get a taste of how herbal medicine works, see how paints and dyes are made using natural minerals and sample the various local foods. Make sure to try the choclo con queso, a regional strain of corn on the cob topped with cheese and chili sauce.

For something closer to the downtown area of Cuzco, you can also visit the San Pedro Central Market located on Santa Clara near the Church and Monastery of Santa Clara. The market is enormous and sells an array of traditional and offbeat items. You can purchase handicrafts, beauty products, fresh fruits, ornate flans, sweet breads, traditional llama fetuses, colorful masks and even hallucinogens.Get A Massage

Walking around the streets of Cuzco, you’ll be bombarded by hundreds of people selling massages and spa treatments. While most will sell these at 30 to 50 Nuevo Soles (about $11 to $19), I found an excellent place called Spa Hampi Maki at 250 Marquez Street, on the 2nd floor of the “Artesanias El Solar Dorado” building. They gave me a 60-minute full-body massage with hot stones for 15 S/.$ (about $6). It was very relaxing with a dark, private room, gentle music and comfortable table.

chocolate Indulge Your Sweet Tooth At The Chocolate Museum

While you’ll find plenty of worthwhile Inca and history museums in Cuzco, one that stands out from the rest is the Chocolate Museum, officially called the ChocoMuseo. The museum is free to enter and features chocolate and cocao history, facts, old advertisements, videos, tastings, workshops and the chance to make your own chocolate. They also offer a Cacao Farm Tour. Moreover, the chance to indulge in delicious chocolate delicacies, like cacao tea, fondue, iced chocolate and a chocolate tasting with Peruvian coffee, can be done in their cafe. Note: The museum is a bit hard to find. It’s located at 210 Garcilaso, on the 2nd floor. Simply walk through a small hallway into an open courtyard to find the stairs leading up to the entrance.

Take A Cooking Class

What better way to get to know a culture than through food? Cusco Cooking offers Peruvian cooking classes where you not only learn how to make traditional dishes, but also how to navigate the markets and create cocktails. Some of the meals you’ll make include crema de choclo, a corn-based soup, arroz con pollo, chicken and rice, lomo saltado, a spiced and marinated beef dish and Pisco Sour, the national drink of Peru. You can choose between three menu choices. The classes take place in the ChocoMuseo at 210 Garcilaso everyday at 5:30 p.m. Prices range from $33 to $42 per person, depending on the size of the class.

plaza de armasLie Out In Plaza de Armas

Plaza de Armas is a big plaza in the downtown area with numerous small gardens, benches and statues. Numerous churches and shops with charming stone architecture surround it, which adds to the aesthetics of the area. The ambiance is charming and peaceful – the perfect place to relax and lie out with a good book.

Explore The Art Of Cuzco

Walking around the city, you’ll find numerous galleries that are free to enter. Here, you’ll find cultural pieces, many of which also incorporate Inca traditions. The works are amazing, with vibrant colors, life-like portraits and landscapes that seem to jump off the page. My favorite galleries were in a building called the Centro Artesanal Arte Inka, located at 392 Triunfo, near Plaza de Armas.

white christ Hike To Cristo Blanco

While you’ll need to pay 70 Soles (about $26) to enter the archeological sites nearby, it is free to hike to Cristo Blanco. It’s located to the right of the admission booth for Sacsayhuaman. Trek 11,811 feet up Pukamoqo Hill, and you’ll come face-to-face with an enormous statue of Christ. The piece was a donation in 1945 from the Christian Palestines who were living in Cuzco as refugees. At night, you can see Cristo Blanco all lit up from the downtown area of the city.

Get Religious At One Of The Town’s Places Of Worship

Cuzco is full of beautiful churches, cathedrals and convents. Near Plaza de Armas is the Cathedral, La Compañia de Jesus, the Convento de la Merced and the Church and Monastary of Santa Clara. Moreover, next to the Parque de la Madre, you’ll find the Church and Monastary of Santa Teresa. My favorite, however, was the Templo de Santo Domingo, with a beautiful manicured lawn and expansive facade, located on the corner of Avenida El Sol and Arryan.

pottery Visit a family In Chichubamba

Chichubamba is a small village in Sacred Valley that is home to 14 families, each of whom have a special talent that you can learn about and experience. When I was there I visited Celia, a woman who makes chicha, or corn beer. I learned about the production process and got to play a local drinking game, where players toss heavy coins into the mouth of a metal frog. Moreover, I visited a family of ceramics makers, and saw how high-quality pottery was made, even getting to roll the clay, create the base and paint a pot myself.

Experience The Nightlife

Cuzco has many options for bars and clubs. The best part: it’s easy to get a buzz on a budget, as a full-priced cocktail will only set you back about $4 to $6. Paddy’s Pub is a lively Irish bar with a great happy hour, although you’re more likely to find Pisco Sours and Cuba Libres on the menu than Magners. However, they do have Guinness. If you want to experience the best club in town, Mama Africa is a favorite among tourists and locals. Other popular bars and clubs include Real McCoy, 7 Angelitos, Groove, Mythology and The Frogs.

Cheesey Street Foods Of Latin America

With the possible exception of Argentina, most people don’t associate Central or South America with cheese. Like all of Latin America, these countries are a mix of indigenous cultures, colonizing forces, immigrant influences, and varied terroir, climatic extremes, and levels of industrialization. They possess some of the most biologically and geographically diverse habitats on earth. As a result, the cuisine and agricultural practices of each country have developed accordingly.

The use of dairy may not be particularly diverse in this part of the world, especially when it comes to styles of cheese, but it’s an important source of nutrition and income in rural areas, and a part of nearly every meal.

While writing a book on cheese during the course of this past year, I tapped into my rather obsessive love of both street food and South America for inspiration. As I learned during my research, the sheer variety of cheesey street snacks from Mexico to Tierra del Fuego are as varied as the ethnic influences responsible for their creation. Read on for a tasty tribute to queso.

Arepas: These flat little corn or flour cakes from Colombia, Venezuela and Panama may be grilled, baked, boiled, or fried. They’re usually stuffed or topped with a melting cheese, but may also feature meat, chicken, seafood, egg, or vegetables.

Anafres: Essentially Honduran nachos, composed of giant tortilla chips, refried beans and melted cheese. Named for an anafre, the coal-fired clay pot the dish is served in.

Pupusas: This Salvadorean staple is similar to an arepa: a thick, griddled corn cake stuffed with meat, cheese–usually a mild melting variety known as quesillo–chicarrones (pork cracklings), or queso con loroco (cheese with the buds or flowers of a vine native to Central America).street food vendorChoclo con queso: Boiled corn with slices or a chunk of mild, milky, fresh white cheese may not sound like much, but this roadside and market staple of Peru and Ecuador is irresistible. The secret is the corn, which is an indigenous Andean variety with large, white, nutty, starchy kernels. It’s satisfying as a snack all by itself, but it’s even better between bites of slightly salty queso.

Empanadas (empadinhas in Brazil): Perhaps the most ubiquitous Latin American street food, riffs on these baked or fried, stuffed pastries can be found from Argentina (where they’re practically a religion) and Chile to Costa Rica and El Salvador. The dough, which is usually lard-based, may be made from wheat, corn or plantain, with fillings ranging from melted, mild white cheese to meat, seafood, corn, or vegetables. In Ecuador, empanadas de viento (“wind”) are everywhere; they’re fried until airy,filled with sweetened queso fresco and dusted with powdered sugar.

Quesadillas: Nearly everyone loves these crisp little tortilla and cheese “sandwiches.” Traditionally cooked on a comal (a flat, cast-iron pan used as a griddle), they’re a popular street food and equally beloved Stateside.

Provoleta: This Argentinean and Uruguayan favorite is made from a domestic provolone cheese. It’s often seasoned with oregano or crushed chile, and grilled or placed on hot stones until caramelized and crispy on the exterior, and melted on the inside. It’s often served at asados (barbecues) as an appetizer, and accompanied by chimmichuri (an oil, herb, and spice sauce).
provoleta
Queijo coaljo: A firm, white, salty, squeaky cheese from Brazil; it’s most commonly sold on the beach on a stick, after being cooked over coals or in handheld charcoal ovens; also known as queijo assado.

Croquettes de Queijo: Cheese croquettes, a favorite appetizer or street food in Brazil.

Coxinhas: A type of Brazilian salgado (snack), these are popular late-night fare. Typically, coxinhas are shredded chicken coated in wheat or manioc flour that have been shaped into a drumstick, and fried. A variation is stuffed with catupiry, a gooey white melting cheese reminiscent of Laughing Cow. Like crack. Crack.

Queijadinhas: These irresistable little cheese custards are a popular snack in Brazil. Like Pringles, stopping at just one is nearly impossible.

Pão de queijo: Made with tapioca or wheat flour, these light, cheesy rolls are among the most popular breads in Brazil.

[Photo credit: Empanada, Flickr user ci_polla; food vendor, Provoleta, Laurel Miller]

Five classic Chilean foods

chilean foodChilean food doesn’t have the glamour and romance of the cuisine of its neighbor, Argentina, nor the complexity and exotic Japanese influences bestowed upon the contemporary dishes of its other neighbor, Peru. I just returned from my second visit to Chile, where in between consuming epic quantities of manjar (dulce de leche) and pisco sours, I found more substantial food to love.

Chilean food is of humble origins; a combination of indigenous influence, simple technique, and hearty, regional ingredients designed to sustain and nourish the body despite limited means and harsh climate. Today, Santiago is a glossy, metropolitan capital of seven million, and there’s no shortage of high-end dining with regard to various cuisines. But travel beyond the city limits, and you’ll see tweaks on Chilean specialties depending upon what part of the country you’re visiting.

Northern Chile is largely high-altitude desert, while Central and Southern Chile have more of a focus on seafood. The following is a very simplified list, but they’re five of the most classic dishes to be found throughout the country.Try them for a taste of Chilean culture and history.

1. Empanadas
Not to be confused with the Argentinean variety, which are essentially a culture within a culture, the Chilean empanada is usually baked, larger and flatter in composition (either crescents or rectangular in shape), and less varied in variety. But what’s not to love about a tender, flaky pocket of dough stuffed with seasoned ground beef, hardboiled egg, and olive; roasted vegetables, or melted, stringy cheese? Not much. Find them at panaderias, shops, markets, or restaurants offering “comida typica.”

2. Curanto
This is a specialty of the lovely island and archipelago of Chiloe in Chilean Patagonia’s Lake District. Curanto is a shellfish, potato flatbread, and meat bake believed to have been inspired by Polynesian luau via Easter Island (Rapa Nui). It’s traditionally cooked in a pit that is covered with seaweed or the leaves of nalca, an indigenous plant related to rhubarb. The potato flatbreads, milcao, and chapalele (the latter flavored with pork cracklings), are delicious street foods in their own right that can be found in coastal towns throughout this region. A curanto is a must-see if you’re visiting Chiloe.chilean food3. Pastel de choclo
Sort of an indigenous shepherd’s pie, this comforting dish is composed of ground corn (choclo) mixed with hard-boiled egg, olive, and usually ground beef and/or chicken. It’s baked and served in an earthenware bowl called a paila, and it makes me all warm and fuzzy inside.

4. Caldillo de Congrio
Okay, I confess that I have a particular dislike for the congrio, or conger eel, which is an obsession in Chile. It’s not that it’s bad; I just don’t care for most fish as a rule (for the record, it’s fairly mild, white, firm, and rather dry and flaky). But I would be remiss to not include it, because it’s such a classic. Whether fried or served in a caldillo, or brothy soup seasoned with cilantro, carrots, potato, and fish stock, it’s hearty, rustic, and very representative of Chile’s culture of subsistence and commercial fishermen.

5. Chupe
This is a somewhat generic term for a creamy seafood stew enriched with milk or cream. Depending upon where you are (or what country you’re in, because it’s also found in Peru and Bolivia), chupe might contain shrimp (thus, it would be called chupe de camarones), fish, chicken, beef, or lamb. It also contains vegetables, potatoes or yuca, and tomato, but the magic is in the addition of merquen, an indigenous (via the Mapuche people) spice mixture made with smoked, powdered cacho de cabra chili. The end result is fragrant, complex, and delicious.

[Photo credits: Laurel Miller]