There are no shortcuts
to any place worth going.
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
Cheese disk rather than a ball.
Ribbons of cheese are rolled like a spiral
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: