It may not harbor the world’s best-known caseophile culture, but we’d like to salute Colombia for its dedication to dairy. While much cheesemaking in the South American country remains informal (about half of Colombian raw milk is transformed and sold locally in small villages), the national mania for cheese has finally started to spill beyond its borders. And if the major wins for standout Colombian exports at recent cheese awards are any indication, the country is proving itself as a cheesemaking hotspot.
There are two main milk-producing regions in the country: The cooler highlands are home to standard dairy cattle like Holsteins, Jerseys, and Brown Swiss, as well as indigenous cross-breeds. The tropical lowlands, however, are speckled with Zebu—a small bovine subspecies from Asia—as well as water buffalo, which can access flooded areas off-limits to cattle. Native to South Asia and China, water buffalo were introduced by the Colombian government in the 1940s to work as draft animals. Today there are about 800,000 water buffalo in the country. Many of them live in the wild; some also have Italian genetics.
Award-winning Buf Creamery, the first company to make and export mozzarella di bufala from Colombia to Chile and the United States, is turning out dairy products that satisfy both local appreciation for mild cheese and international demand for bufala. “It’s a niche that domestically can’t be matched by cows, and it’s proven successful here,” says Buf’s founder Alejandro Gomez Torres, whose company now runs six water buffalo dairies in the Andean foothills outside Bogtotá. “I attribute our success to Colombianos’ affinity for fresh cheeses. We love them to a point where other cheeses ‘smell bad.’”
Indeed, fresh cheeses—due to cultural preferences, transportation logistics, and climate—account for the majority of Colombian production. Each region specializes in its own style of pasta filata cheese, as well as pressed cheeses made with varying amounts of salt. The most popular include ubiquitous mozzarella-like queso blanco and milky, aromatic quesillo; more esoteric offerings include salty, string-textured queso momposino and nutty, semi-firm queso paipa. While Colombia hasn’t yet established a formal network for cheese tourism, such as Argentina’s “La Ruta del Queso,” travelers can stay at agriturismos located on dairy farms or purchase product directly (watch for signs advertising queso from roadside stands or driveways).
So great is the Colombian love of cheese that it’s eaten at nearly every meal. It’s melted into coffee and hot chocolate (chocolate Santafereño), consumed as a snack or dessert with arequipe (dulce de leche) or bocadillo (guava paste), melted atop sweet and savory dishes, and—most deliciously—stuffed into snacks like arepas and baked goods. “We keep our cheese inside carbohydrates instead of ripening them,” says Gomez Torres. “It’s strange, I agree, but it’s delicious.”
Best Cheese of Colombia
El Rosal, Colombia
Redolent of the grassy Andean pasture foraged by Buf’s free-ranging water buffalo herd, with a hint of lactic tang, these moist, chewy pasta filata balls pair beautifully with grilled peaches or nectarines—and they steal the show in a roasted vegetable sandwich.