Little Italy in Mexico?

“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.

Grilled chicken and fresh cheese from the state of Puebla.

Queso fresco makes the perfect addition to the meal.

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.



3 Responses to “Little Italy in Mexico?”

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  1. Lorena says:

    Fun article Churpa,

    Steve, Carl and I once went house hunting in Chipilo, when we were in the final stages of finishing the The Peoples Guide to Mexico. This was the stage where we had every confidence that we could finish the book “in just another month”. As I recall we spent at least 6 months in this stage, each month renting a house in a village a little further north than the pervious one. We were heading to Santa Fe, where John and Eve Muir had started John Muir Publications

    There were a couple places available in Chipilo; both were old two story houses, made from wood and, yes, looking very European. The town’s people were very friendly, but the houses were not quite what we had in mind. The bottom ‘floor’ was the barn and the main, 2nd floor, had been built for a huge, many generational family.

    We ended up in a nearby village, who’s name I can’t remember, though, while looking at a Google map, San Andrés de Cholula does sound familiar. The house was probably the original hacienda in the little village, a rambling, crumbling one-story adobe house, around a neglected courtyard.

    We rented the whole place except for two back rooms that the owner was using to store corn. Unfortunately, he would show up about 4am every market day, to load the corn into an ancient pickup.

    We left at the end of the month, heading northward, looking for another house to rent. For a month. To finish the PG….

  2. -el codo- says:

    Pretty Please Lorena?

    An online book for sale?

    “The Making Of The People’s Guide to Mexico”

    Con jarabe? Miel de Abeja?

    Old tightwad here would part with twenty dollars so fast, it would make you and Carl dizzy…

  3. Lene says:

    I love queso oaxaqueño, but in Oaxaca the the quesadillas and empanadas often have so much on them, in long strands, that I kind of gag if I am not careful. So delicious, though! Back in Texas, mi novio y yo frecuentemente purchase the Mexican cheeses at the grocery store because (1) they’re usually marked down; (2) there is typically some sort of Mexican analog to the cheeses that are our staples. So far, we’ve had a very positive experience with this strategy.