The 2024 Hot List: Carmen Licon | culture: the word on cheese
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The 2024 Hot List: Carmen Licon

This story is part of culture’s 2024 Hot List. Click here to learn more about the selection process and to see the entire list of recipients.

Photo courtesy Carmen Licon

Carmen Licon, PhD

Director, Dairy Products Technology Center, CalPoly San Luis Obispo
Director, Pacific Coast Coalition-Dairy Business Innovation Initiative
San Luis Obispo, California

Dr. Carmen Licon has led CalPoly Dairy Products Technology Center since August 2023. Born and raised in Chihuahua, Mexico, she grew up surrounded by high-quality, authentic dairy products, which sparked her lifelong passion. Educated in Mexico, the United States, Spain, and France, Licon earned her master’s and doctorate degrees in agricultural science and food engineering; she also earned accolades for her cheese adventures in Europe, including the creation of a patented hard cheese similar to Manchego that’s flavored with saffron spice and has won multiple medals at the World Cheese Awards. Licon is driven by innovation and is on a mission to make dairy dreams come true for artisanal cheesemakers.

Who is your biggest inspiration in the cheese world?

My greatest inspirations are the anonymous women cheesemakers nestled in the rural landscapes of Mexico, particularly in the Oaxacan region. These remarkable women diligently craft cheese each day, relying solely on manual techniques that are devoid of modern technology or formal education. Their routine begins at the break of dawn as they milk the cows, expertly produce cheese by hand, and then proudly present their creations for sale at the local market to sustain their families.

What was your big “aha moment” when you entered this industry?

In October 2017, I was a recent food engineer graduate, and I moved to Spain with what I thought was enough cheese knowledge. While visiting a farmers’ market in the Murcia region south of Spain, I sampled queso fresco, goat cheese, sheep cheese, Manchego, Murcia al Vino, etc., and within 10 minutes, I realized that every region has its own “cheese world.” I wanted to discover as many of those worlds as possible. My primary goal is to educate on various fronts: first, to inform consumers about the diversity of cheese and the challenges of the industry; second, to empower artisanal cheesemakers to make informed decisions grounded in research and science; and third, to engage in applied research activities.

You’re on a desert island and can only eat one cheese for the rest of your life. What is it?

Manchego! I would build an aging room and consume Manchego at multiple stages of ripening (from fresh to aged).

What is an underrated cheese that everyone should know about?

Mexican Quesillo from Oaxaca. Quesillo, also known as Oaxaca cheese, is a pasta filata that has the perfect balance of acidity and saltiness that melts in your mouth. It’s just perfect.

What is a pairing you’re ashamed to love?

Melted cheese with grilled Anaheim peppers, a typical dish from my hometown.

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