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Cheese Plate: History con Queso

Cheese is a huge part of our gastronomic life in Mexico. It’s something that has taken a long time to get much attention in the United States and abroad, but it’s finally happening. These authentic Mexican cheeses—all found outside of Mexico—will transport you to our country, and may resemble something you’ve had here on vacation. Enjoy an edible lesson in our cheesemaking history and culture.

A spread of Mexican cheeses including queso fresco, queso oakaca, and tetilla DOP


1. Queso Fresco

Pictured at bottom

Mozzarella Company – Dallas, Texas
Pasteurized cow’s milk; Vegetable rennet

When Mexican cheesemaking began in the mid-1800s, there was no culture of affinage or cheese maturing, and no refrigeration. As a result, people made queso fresco (fresh cheese), a traditional farmer’s cheese that’s lightly pressed and salted, and is meant for consumption the day or week it’s made.

Queso fresco is normally crumbled on top of food—enchiladas or tostadas, for instance. It’s also used in Mexican tapas, called botanas. This particular queso fresco by Paula Lambert’s Mozzarella Company is milky and fresh, with salty flavor.

2. Queso Oaxaca

Pictured in center

Queso Salazar – Brentwood, Calif.
Pasteurized cow’s milk; Vegetable rennet

This cheese is called by different names, depending on where you are in Mexico or abroad. In Oaxaca, it’s quesillo (small cheese). Elsewhere in Southern Mexico, it’s queso de hebra (string cheese), as it’s a pulled-curd cheese. In Mexico City and the US, it’s called queso Oaxaca, in reference to its state of origin.

Traditionally used in quesadillas, this cheese can be very sweet. It’s also a bit acidic, which some people really like. If you can’t find Queso Salazar’s version, try one made by the Mozzarella Company, California’s Karoun Dairies, Cesar’s Cheese in Wisconsin, or Ochoa’s Queseria in Oregon.

3. Tetilla DOP

Pictured at top

Celga – Pontevedra, Spain
Pasteurized cow’s milk; Traditional rennet

While Tetilla is a Spanish cheese, it’s a good stand-in for two cheeses popular in Mexico. The first is a cow’s milk cheese made by Canadian Mennonites who settled in Chihuahua in the 1920s, bringing their cheesemaking tradition (and cows) with them. This queso Chihuahua, or Menonita, is similar to cheddar but without the saltiness and sharpness.

The second cheese is manchego (or tipo manchego, manchego type). During Mexico’s colonization, emigrants from the Spanish region of Castile-La Mancha wanted to make cheese from their home: the real Manchego. There was no access to sheep’s milk, so they substituted cow’s milk.

Tetilla has many properties found in these two cheeses. It’s a semi-soft cow’s milk cheese, aged just 15 to 20 days. Being full-fat, it’s very creamy and milky, and melts easily on top of other foods or in queso fundido.

Cilantro-Pineapple Salsa – Zukali

Try this spicy and salty salsa—made with tomatillos, roasted peppers, cilantro, and pineapple—alongside tortilla chips, sliced avocado, and cheese (queso fresco works best, but experiment). zukali.com


A lot of good mezcal (a spirit made from fermented varieties of agave) is making its way to the US; I like those by Alipús, Pierde Almas, and Wahaka. First-timers might start with the Espadín variety; for smokier, complex flavors, try Madrecuixe. Savor it in small sips, not shots.

Carlos Yescas

Carlos Yescas is a cheese scholar and book author. He serves as the Program Director of the Oldways Cheese Coalition, a US-based non-profit promoting artisanal cheese and protecting traditional cheesemaking practices. He is the founder of Lactography in Mexico and a supreme judge of the World Cheese Awards.

Liz Clayman

Photographer and food stylist