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The Art of Cheesemaking in Peru

James McKenna

I came to the Peruvian town of Baños to learn about cheesemaking in the Andes after seeing mountains of cheese in the small city of Huanuco.

This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES in October 2015.

I met Oliva in a shared taxi. We were on the outskirts of the small Peruvian town of Baños, after I'd been riding for hours through the winding dirt road of the Central Andes. She flagged down the taxi to get a ride into town and climbed in with a basket full of lettuce.

As we approached Baños, I inquired about her lettuce. She said she had grown it on her farm and was selling it at market. But of course, she'd left some at home to make papa huancaína, a dish typical dish from the Huancayo region that resembles a cheesy potato salad.

I pressed further: "Will you teach me to make papa huancaína?"

She laughed, looking back at this crazy gringo. But after some persuasion, she agreed. An hour later, we had set up my tent in the pastures by the river below her small farmhouse.

One of the country's most popular brands, Leche Gloria, is produced on an industrial scale and packaged in bags or cartons, which are stored at room temperature in corner stores in cities everywhere. How was it that this small city was drinking fresh milk while the rest of Peru drank a highly processed and near lactose-free version?

"Where are the dairies?" I asked the vendors.

"Baños," they all said.

So there I was: in the small, smoky kitchen with Antonio and Oliva, dairy farmers and complete strangers. We drank warm milk and ate bread and fresh cheese before I headed down to the pasture by the river to sleep in the grass that made the milk we were drinking. I spent the next four days working, cooking, and sharing stories with Oliva and Antonio.

Antonio and Oliva were once teachers in Huanuco, they said, but they decided to take over Oliva's mother's farm to milk cows, make cheese, and live off the land. While leaving the city and returning to work family land sounds romantic, the realities of the situation were harsh. Nonetheless, Oliva and Antonio have made the most of their situation. They smile and laugh; they make delicious food; they take immense pride in their work and in their cheese. They embodied the realities of subsistence farming and the strength of the individuals who do it.

Oliva's mother's farmhouse

Oliva, peeling potatoes from her chakra (Quechua for farm)

Antonio

Caldo verde (green broth), a common breakfast made of boiled potatoes with herbs and Oliva's cheese.

Oliva heads out to milk the cows. The dogs, pigs, cows, and sheep were always so hungry, and there never seems to be enough food to go around. The pigs and the dogs share the leftovers from Oliva and Antonio's cooking, as well as the whey leftover from the cheesemaking process.

"In Baños, the people have their cow. They spend their life with their little cow. They make cheese, and take it to the market," Oliva said.

Antonio brings buckets of milk back to the kitchen for cheese making.

Oliva strains milk and mixes it with rennet (the enzyme in a cow's stomach that curdles the milk) to separate the curd and whey.

Antonio harvests choclo, a variety of corn that is grown in the Andes and eaten all over Peru. Their is a small stone storeroom built up on the hillside to hold harvested potatoes and corn until the family is ready to consume them.

The stones of this mortar have been worn down over decades by Oliva and her mother. Oliva crushed garlic and dried chiles into a blood-red puree that she folds into her fresh cheese. She makes a salad with lettuce, the chile cheese, hard boiled eggs, potatoes, and mint. They jokingly called it papa bañosino because it was a much more rustic version of papa huancaína, which we had intended to make but ran out of time.

Papa bañosino

Without refrigeration, meat is preserved by very traditional methods. Olivia put me to work cutting up charkay, jerky she made from her sheep. She salts the meat and sun-dries it on the tin roof of her kitchen. I diced up the charkay, fried it, and mixed it in with ollucos (an Andean tuber resembling a pink speckled potato with the texture and color of a golden beet.) Oliva mixed in a blend of herbs they refer to in the Andean markets as snapas, which generally includes cilantro, parsley, huacatay (black mint), and oregano.

Oliva stored a new loaf of cheese on a straw bed to ripen before bringing it to market. Oliva told me that each loaf of cheese earns her 10 soles at the market—a little more than US $3. For Oliva, making cheese is a whole lot of work for a pretty insubstantial amount of money.

These are the molds that olivia makes her loaves of cheese. They were handed down to her by her mother. Oliva's cheeses stand out at the market because of their square shape—the other producers make rounds—as well as their flavor. Oliva takes great pride in her product and the place from which it comes.