Mexico’s Ambassador of Cheese

Carlos Yescas

With The New York Times ranking Mexico City as the top travel destination for 2016, maybe you have moved this vibrant capital higher up on your bucket list. If you do go, make time for Lactography, a petite cheese shop inside the hip Mercado Roma.
 
In a space the size of a walk-in closet, Carlos Yescas and his sister, Georgina, have amassed hand-crafted cheeses from all over Mexico. On a mission to help rural cheesemakers find markets, these two evangelists are trying to elevate the image of their country’s dairy output and persuade Mexicans to take their own cheeses seriously.
 
“It’s a question of class,” admits Carlos. “The middle and upper classes would never be seen eating Mexican cheese. They prove their class by eating European cheese.”
 
Carlos gave me a guided tour of the shop’s inventory earlier this month when I visited Mexico City. I was lucky to catch him there. He lives most of the year in Boston, where he is the program director for the Oldways Cheese Coalition, a nonprofit advocacy group. Georgina runs the business in his absence.
 
The notion of a specialty cheese shop is foreign to most Mexicans. “Either you buy your cheese at the supermarket,” Carlos told me, “or you have family in the country that makes cheese and brings it to you.”
 
Initially, Carlos and Georgina sold the cheeses they found to friends. Then Georgina began taking the cheeses to farmers’ markets in Mexico City, and eventually chefs heard about them. Edgar Núñez, of the trendy Restaurante Sud 777, was the first chef to place an order; now Lactography supplies seven of the city’s top eateries.
 
The shop sells traditional cheeses like panela, queso Oaxaca and queso Cotija, but they are farmstead, not industrial, versions. More interesting, Carlos is encouraging the cheesemakers to try new styles and techniques, like ashed rinds and washed rinds. I admired a heart-shaped ashed goat cheese christened Pasión (“passion”) and a mixed-milk cheese with a washed rind called Flor de Atlixco. But my favorite was a two-month-old sheep’s milk cheese (queso de oveja) from Querétaro with aromas of pineapple and caramel. Made by Rancho San Josemaría, the cheese won a bronze medal at the 2011 World Cheese Awards.

  Clockwise from ball: Bola Ocosingo, queso Cotija; Rancho San Josemaría queso de oveja; chili-coated queso del Morral; Pasión

Clockwise from ball: Bola Ocosingo, queso Cotija; Rancho San Josemaría queso de oveja; chili-coated queso del Morral; Pasión

None of the Lactography cheeses is available in the U.S., nor is export likely. “The FDA makes it too hard,” says Carlos. “They think anything coming from Mexico is ‘suitcase cheese,’” presumably made in an unlicensed, unsanitary facility. Until that changes, you can pick up some panela from a Mexican market and enjoy it sliced with warm corn tortillas or crumbled in the salad below.
 
Lactography
Mercado Roma
Calle Querétaro 225, Roma Norte, Mexico City

Arugula with Nopales, Avocado and Panela

Arugula Salad

I enjoyed a similar salad, minus the panela, at Lardo, the newest restaurant from Mexico City superstar chef Elena Reygadas. You can find panela, a fresh, moist cow’s milk cheese, at many supermarkets, but it will likely be fresher at a Mexican market with good turnover. Many Mexican markets also sell fresh nopales (cactus paddles) already trimmed of their thorns.
 
Dressing:

  • 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil  
  • 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
  • 1 small clove garlic, grated on a Microplane or finely minced
  • Kosher or sea salt
     
  • ¼ teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 large, trimmed cactus paddle, about 8 ounces
  • ¼ pound arugula, baby spinach or watercress
  • 2 to 3 tablespoons pepitas (toasted pumpkin seeds)
  • 3 ounces panela cheese, diced or coarsely crumbled
  • 1 avocado, ripe but firm, cubed or sliced

In a small bowl, whisk the dressing ingredients. Taste and adjust the balance.
 
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over high heat. Add the baking soda and the cactus paddle (cut in half to fit if necessary). Boil until tender, 20 to 25 minutes. Drain and rinse with cold water until cool. Pat dry. Cut into strips about 2 inches long and ¼ inch wide.
 
In a large bowl, toss the cactus with the dressing. Add the greens and pepitas and toss again. Add the cheese and avocado and toss very gently. Taste for salt and lemon. Serve immediately.
 
Serves 4