“I smell fresh tortillas,” I said, with the feverish conviction of a bloodhound.
Rich, Gina, and I were straggling down the edge of the highway, cooking in the sun and looking for a lunch spot to kill some time while the guy at the nearby taller changed Miss Lousiane’s oil.
We approached a roadside restaurant, which was painted bright green and attended by a smiling proprietor of a very old-school breed: long braids, a crisp checked apron over her flowered dress, and a broad, dark face with prominent cheek bones and deep crow’s feet. Her eyes were dark, with an obsidian sparkle.
She reeled off a short list of offerings, including chicharrón with salsa verde, which Gina bravely ordered (more on that later). Rich and I played it safe and went with the chicken.
When I order chicken at a Mexican comedor, I expect to get a drumstick or thigh, stewed in tomato broth. This time, we were surprised by chicken breasts pounded thin and flavored with rosemary. The grilled meat was accompanied by black beans, homemade tortillas, and a slab of cheese that was like nothing I’d ever encountered in Mexico. It had a quintessentially Mexican pungency, but the texture was that of classic fresh mozzarella.
I was just about to ask our cook about the delicious cheese when a pick-up pulled up and a guy in jeans and a plaid work shirt jumped out. He had a light, slightly sunburned complexion and a bushy mustache. The back of his truck was filled with milk pails and coolers. He chatted with the señora a bit in Spanish, exchanged a bundle for some cash, and drove off.
“He makes good cheese,” the señora explained as she delivered another batch of steaming tortillas to our table. “His people came from somewhere else. Somewhere in Europe. I can’t remember the name of the country. They all live in the same pueblo, not far from here. They know how to make the best cheese. I wish I could remember the name of the country.”
“Do they practice a different religion?” I ask, thinking of Mexico’s population of cheese-making Mennonites , who immigrated to the country in the 1920s, when they were promised tax breaks and freedom from religious prosecution.
“Oh no!” the señora replied, sounding affronted. “They are good Catholics like us!”
Now that I’m back home with time to research such topics with greater leisure, I’ve concluded that she may have been talking of Chipilo, Puebla, which, according to Mexico Desconocido, was founded in 1882 by a group of Italian immigrants, survivors of a flood that had left them homeless. The Mexico Desconocido article goes on to describe an offer of queso oreado from an elderly gentleman with white hair and a large mustache. When the reporter asks señor Daniel Galeazzi if he is Italian, he replies (rough translation)
“I was born in Chipilo. I’m Mexican and I’m proud to be Mexican, but I have Italian heritage which stems from the town of Segusino in the Véneto region, where the majority of our inhabitants’ ancestors come from.”
Now I have another Mexican town for my travel bucket list. At least I got to sample the cheese! Speaking of sampling Mexican cheese, my next project (or rather one of many) is to create a comprehensive overview of Mexican cheeses. I would love to hear your memories, anecdotes, or rants on the subject of Mexican cheeses. For now, check out Karen Hursh Graber’s article at Mexconnect.
Incidentally, just as I was finishing this post, my neighbor showed up with two balls of fresh mozzarella, homemade with milk from his cows. I’m now off for a less cerebral exploration of cheese…I’m thinking minestrone.
editor’s note: Special thanks to a PG reader for inspiring this article and providing interesting resources! Photo by Gina Dilello.