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]

Photo Of The Day: Antigua At Sunset


Tucked in a valley in the central highlands of Guatemala, the colonial town of Antigua is one of Central America’s greatest treasures, as well as one of its best budget travel destinations. The town is captured magically at sunset in today’s Photo of the Day, taken by Flickr user Adam Baker from his perch at the Earth Lodge, an eco-resort and avocado farm located just outside the city. According to Baker, “Even the bartender came out to enjoy the view.”

Have you captured any awe-inspiring sunset photographs lately? Upload your travel shots to the Gadling Flickr Pool and your image could be selected as our Photo of the Day.

Atlanta Airport To Become A Global Portal

atlanta airportWhen the Atlanta airport’s new Concourse F international terminal opens on May 16, it will add 12 international gates and create a new entry-exit point for travelers on the opposite end of the airport from the main terminal. The new facility will address a number of current issues but the $1.5 billion addition is more geared toward future travel needs.

As the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (AJC) reports, the project is tasked with anticipating a new travel industry. “You can’t build something today that meets your needs for today,” said airport general manager Louis Miller. “We’re building for the future.”

When the project began in the late 1990s, initial cost estimates of a few hundred million dollars had the new Maynard H. Jackson Jr. International Terminal opening in 2006. Now six years late, the facility will eliminate the current baggage claim setup for Atlanta-bound international travelers, who must recheck their baggage before a train ride to the distant main terminal after clearing customs.

That’s a good, immediate improvement for international travelers but the additional gates will not only provide more capacity for international flights but also open space for domestic flights.

“At peak hours, we have a need for additional facilities,” Miller said. “But we’re really looking toward the future.”

Delta, the airport’s biggest airline, thinks the new concourse will operate near capacity several times a day. Spokesman Trebor Banstetter told AJC that operating flights out of the new concourse would give its top customers access to the “world-class facility” and its new Sky Club lounge.

“We want our best customers to be in this facility,” Banstetter said.

Colorado-based aviation consultant Mike Boyd believes future growth in Atlanta’s operations will continue, propelling the facility into much more than it is today.

“The reality is, if we don’t build these things, you’re going to find yourself way behind the curve,” Boyd said. “Atlanta is still going to grow … Delta is going to turn Atlanta into what we call a global portal, where there will be enormous amounts of traffic flows going all over Latin America and all over Asia.”

World's Busiest Airport Getting Busier

[Flickr photo via redlegsfan21]

Hilton launches “Authentically Local” programs in the Caribbean and Latin America

Can a mega-corporate hospitality chain with 3,750 hotels provide authentic local experiences to travelers? Select Hilton Worldwide hotels are giving it a shot with the just announced “Authentically Local” packages. Available through the end of the year in the Caribbean and Latin America, the packages are aimed at introducing travelers to local cultures and languages through experiences such as dinners featuring local flavors, dance lessons in the local style, destination and tour suggestions hand-picked by locals, and more. There is even the opportunity for hotel guests to choose wearing a “language immersion pin” that identifies them as someone hotel employees will only speak to in the local language.

Options under the new package include tasting conch at the British Colonial Hilton Nassau in the Bahamas, learning rumba at the Hilton Cartagena in Colombia, snorkelling in the clear waters at the Hilton Curaçao off the coast of Venezuela, or touring the Mercado Municipal when staying at the Hilton São Paulo Morumbi in Brazil. The hotel chain also says culture consultants will be avialable at each participating property (full list after the jump) to help guests learn about the most celebrated experiences in the destinations.

So, is Hilton’s new initiative to help travelers partake in authentic experiences when staying at their hotels a way the chain is reaching out to the community, or is it just a marketing ploy? It could go either way, but no matter what it’s nice to see more travelers will be learning about local cultures.PS. For those interested, the “Authentically Local” package is being offered at the following locations: Hilton Buenos Aires, Argentina; Hilton São Paulo Morumbi, Brazil; Hilton Belem, Brazil; Hilton Bogota, Colombia; Hilton Cartagena, Colombia; Hilton Garden Inn Santiago Airport, Chile; Hilton Los Cabos Beach & Golf Resort; Hilton Mexico City Reforma; Hilton Villahermosa & Conference Center, Mexico; Hilton Garden Inn Tuxtla Gutierrez, Mexico; Hilton Papagayo Costa Rica Resort & Spa; DoubleTree Resort by Hilton Central Pacific – Costa Rica; DoubleTree Cariari by Hilton San Jose, Costa Rica; British Colonial Hilton Nassau, The Bahamas; Hilton Barbados Resort; Hilton Curaçao; Hilton Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic; and Hilton Trinidad & Conference Centre.

[Photo: Man selling conch shells in Nassau, Bahamas by Libby Zay]

New airport terminals, once delayed, prep for opening this year

new airport terminalsNew airport terminals can add time-saving features to existing facilities, bringing the latest in technology and security. If and when they open. Local and worldwide economic conditions caused projects to be delayed or shelved for a while. Now, several new facilities are preparing to open and new projects are being approved, signaling a brighter future to come.

The long anticipated and twice delayed inauguration of a new terminal at the Daniel Oduber International Airport (LIR) in Liberia, capital of the northwest province of Guanacaste, is happening this week.

“Costa Rica will be in a very advantageous situation, since we will have the best secondary airport in all of Central America, and perhaps one of the best in Latin America,” Transport Minister Francisco Jiménez told Ticotimes. “This will be a very important part of the development of the northern Pacific region.”

The airport will have the capacity to provide service to 1,500 passengers during peak hours and boasts security upgrades, temporary holding rooms for detained passengers, and dormitories for people in the process of being deported. Said to be the answer to notorious Liberia airport lines that sometimes stretch outside of the terminal, the new facility will be a welcome addition.

Coming up in Las Vegas this June, McCarran International Airport (LAS) opens new $2.4 billion Terminal 3, primarily to serve international and domestic long-haul flights. The new terminal will have 14 gates, a baggage handling system and parking garage and will feature an underground shuttle to the D gates and two floors of security checkpoints. When the new terminal opens, Terminal 2, an eight-gate charter on the airport’s north side, will be torn down.

Miami International Airport‘s (MIA) North Terminal Development Program is quickly nearing completion in 2012. Only three gates remain to be opened in the 50-gate “super concourse,” which is used by American Airlines as its hub for Latin America and the Caribbean to serve more than 20 million passengers annually and provide more than 300 daily flights.

Noted as one of the top ten airports for shopping in the world by Cheapflights.ca, the “terminals feel more like shopping malls than airports” reports the Miami Herald.

Indeed, to make airports work in today’s economy, they are becoming much more than just a place where planes take off and land. In addition to destination-like features, community leaders are pushing airport construction and expansion as a way land on sound economic ground.

“We need a healthy economy to thrive as a community. And transportation infrastructure is absolutely a part of this,” said Supervisor Shirlee Zane, chairwoman, when the Sonoma County California Board of Supervisors unanimously endorsed an $84 million project to expand Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport (STS) to enable more daily commercial flights this week.

“In this economy, this is as close to an economic home run as we’re going to get,” said Jonathan Coe, of the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce.

In Vermont, construction on a new terminal building at Vermont’s Newport State Airport (UUU) could begin as early as this summer. That would be a big step in a $12.8 million expansion project that officials say is designed to boost the area’s economy.

“This 9-year project has put a focus on utilizing our existing airports to mark Vermont not only a destination for vacationers, but also a viable economic force in the Northeast region,” said Guy Rouelle, aviation director for the Vermont Transportation Agency in BusinessWeek.

Utilizing existing airports, remodeling and upgrading facilities to address security concerns and improve the process for passengers has been a long time coming. Signs like these indicate overdue projects will be getting back on track and point to a bright future for American aviation.

But new airports are not popular everywhere as we see in this video.


Chile Clashes Over Airport Construction

Flickr photo by gTarded


Read more here: http://www.miamiherald.com/2012/01/11/2585180/mia-a-top-international-shopping.html#storylink=cpy

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