Exactly 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.With 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).
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]