Mar 2, 2017

Meet Mexico’s ‘Mozzarella’ – Queso de Hebra

There are no shortcuts
to any place worth going.

Beverly Sills

Breaking down the ribbons into strings
When I first saw the words ‘Queso de Hebra’ on a package in the old market, I misread the name and thought it said ‘Queso de Hierbas’ and was looking forward to trying a cheese made with fine herbs.  It turned out I was wrong but ultimately became happily surprised with my new discovery.  I was delighted by an excellent handmade string cheese.  Nothing like the fake and plastic tasting finger-size string cheese sold in the USA.  Nothing like it…

Coming from Québec, I was raised eating fresh cheese curds as a treat and one of the things I miss the most food-wise, other than real maple butter, are these squeaky fresh curds.  Squeak, squeak, squeak between the teeth as you chew these very fresh tidbits.  The taste of slightly buttery, tangy and salty-sweet raw milk is very earthy.  Hard to describe but once you taste it, you cannot forget it. 

Well, I found a similar feel and taste in the Queso de Hebra, literally meaning cheese threads or strands but known as string cheese…  It is locally called quesillo, or little cheese.  It is so fresh that it still floats in a bit of its briny whey inside the bag in which it is packaged.  You are supposed to eat this cheese within 2-3 days so only buy enough for that!  It was made popular for its capacity to melt, but not brown, making it perfect for quesadillas and pizzas. 

Small balls of Queso de Hebra
Also called Oaxaca cheese from the main region where it is made, this slightly dry white cheese has the consistency of a semi-hard cheese and the texture of a mozzarella (known as pasta filata or spun paste style) cheese but with a much softer flavor.  The process came from Italy and was brought to Mexico by Dominican monks who settled in Oaxaca in 1575.  While this story sounds good, no historian has been able to give it credence yet.  It is believed that Italians had something to do with it but that perhaps it happened much later, anywhere between 1885 and 1950.  Another mystery…

Mesoamerican diet did not include dairy products prior to the arrival of the Europeans. The  Spanish brought dairy animals such as cattle, sheep, and goats as well as cheese-making techniques.   Even after several decades of making cheese, Mexico lags way behind Europe in both quantity and variety of cheeses.  Most cheeses are still made with raw milk in small family farms and sold locally.  Mexican cheeses are not yet standardized by type, process or quality so it is difficult to estimate how many types are made, etc.

Cheese disk rather than a ball. 
Ribbons of cheese are rolled like a spiral
Most of Oaxaca cheese is made from raw milk.  The production involves stretching the cheese into long strips and then rolling them into balls.  It is mostly consumed in Mexico but finds a niche market in the USA.

The finished product looks like balls or disks made from very white wide rubber bands rolled tightly together. When a customer wants some quesillo, s/he requests a certain weight, and the person inside the market unwinds a strip of cheese matching the quantity ordered.  We like, and luckily can afford, a whole ball or disk.  In Campeche, we mostly see flat spiraled disks (as seen in picture above).

Ready for the market
As much as we have written and complained about the lack of good cheeses in Mexico, this one is a winner and we will keep it in our cooking repertoire.

Oaxaca is not the only place where string cheese is made but the most known and popular.  It is also made under different names in San Luis Potosi (guaje) and in Veracruz (trenzado, meaning braided).  There is even an expression that translates as “That’s more tangled than a Oaxacan cheese”, when referring to bureaucracy, red tape, or government… 

Quesadilla with Oaxaca cheese and squash blossoms, a specialty of the region
Overall, Mexico is the 9th largest producer of cheese in the world and eight in consumption even though a large percentage of Mexicans are lactose intolerant. 

Should you wish to see how this cheese is made.

Here is a video of someone in the US making string cheese with pasteurized milk:
Another Andrew Zimmern video of the cheese being made in Oaxaca with raw milk:

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