When I first got into cheese, it seemed like I’d need a crash course in Italian or French if I wanted to hear the full story behind the world’s most interesting wheels—turns out I just needed to brush up on my grade-school Spanish. While the American artisan cheese community has spent years fixated on Europe, Latin American cheesemakers have been keeping old traditions alive and even developing new ones right here in the Americas. And spreading this good word however she can is Jessica Fernández, a self-described queer Latin American cheese expert.
Fernández is head cheesemonger at Lactography in Mexico City, a World Cheese Awards judge, board member of the Cheese Culture Coalition, and co-founder of Mexican Mongers. Through the latter project, she offers cheese classes and online education to aspiring mongers and cheesemakers in Spanish in an effort to train more Latin American cheese professionals on both sides of the industry. Her Instagram posts for both @mexicanmongers and her personal account (@jessfelo) contain tons of good cheese info—I’ve never been so grateful for the “See Translation” button. She was kind enough to speak to me in English about what it’s like to judge a cheese competition, her favorite American wheels, and the Harbison of Central America.
This interview has been edited for length.
culture: Your resume is so overwhelming, I don’t know what to ask you about first! Let’s start simple. Where are you currently living and working?
JESSICA FERNANDEZ: I am working and living in Mexico City. I was born and raised here, too. And started my cheese career with Lactography here. I am “Chilanga” [slang for residents of Mexico City].
How did you get started working in cheese?
JF: The first job I got when I finished college was with Lactography as administrative assistant of Georgina Yescas. It was in 2014, I was 24 years old. I saw the job offer on Twitter and I decided to apply because I had been following the project fora while. I have always loved food. Carlos Yescas was my first contact and he directed me to Geo. They are great teachers, they really planted the cheese seed in me. I had never seen anything like them in my life, their passion was contagious.Having the opportunity of working with them changed my life forever.
You wear so many hats in the cheese world. Can you walk me through what a typical workday is like for you?
JF: OMG I am blushed right now! I am a simple and sometimes messy person. I would say I am like cheese, seasonal. I don’t always have the same routine, but some habits have stuck with me. I am not a morning person, so I start working around 9 a.m. The perfect cup of coffee is essential for me, so I always grind my beans and make my coffee, usually with a V60 or Italian Moka. I love English tea, too, Georgina made me fall in love with tea. I always skip breakfast, I have been fasting for the past two years. After that is email checking, social media programming, and WhatsApp with Carlos and Geo to check the day, week, or any special project we need to work on. Then I’ll go out on the jungle asphalt to our office. I used to go by car but I recently got myself a bike, so I’ll start commuting on two wheels! As soon as I get to our facilities, I’ll check the cheeses. First our nursery, where we keep the cheese we are aging and washing, then the rest of the fridges. I don’t go every day, I’ll go three times a week. If I stay at home, I’ll check numbers and our social media. I make the photography of our website and social media, sometimes I have to edit some images. Sometimes we have to visit some clients and make small tastings.
I always forget something, it’s a constant thought in my head, so I am trying to be more organized about things. In the past two years, things have grown exponentially and sometimes I need 36 hours a day to get through. My day ends at 2 a.m., I am a night owl, so I like reading and [scribbling] my ideas at night. Many good ones have come after midnight!
Tell me what it’s like to judge a cheese competition. Do you get sick of eating cheese? Are there spit buckets?
JF: It depends on where and what you are judging, every time is so different and familiar at the same time, you owe the same attention to the first cheese you taste and to the last. It’s recommended that you go from low to high intensity in flavor. It is an awesome experience every time, it’s purely sensorial how you approach cheese, all your senses need to be aware. I still remember what some cheeses made me feel. It is like they are talking to you, the way they look, smell, the colors, and, at last, the layers of taste and texture. I could swear that sometimes I feel like they are watching me, too. I have never felt sick, but your stomach may get upset afterwards. Yes, you can spit the cheese. We did not have buckets, but napkins and a trash can. Some cheeses you are allowed to skip if there are evident signs of contamination or spoiling.
I know you’re teaching online classes right now. What are some of the most common questions you get from people starting out in cheese?
JF: How safe are the molds growing in the cheese? How long does the cheese really last? How to store cheese properly? How to pair cheese with wine?
You’re also on the board of the Cheese Culture Coalition, working to make room for BIPOC voices in the white and Euro-centric world of artisan cheese. Can you tell me what you guys are working on now and what this work has been like for you?
JF: When I had the honor of joining this incredible group of women, they had already made a spectacular effort to create the CCC. Each [board member] with [their] experience and history has nurtured the CCC with the mission to promote equity and inclusion within the cheese industry by empowering BIPOC communities through education. The main program that has been worked on is the Cheese Education Program. It focuses on the cheese education of school-aged students in underrepresented communities. This program brings comprehensive cheese education to schools through assemblies or workshops and virtual workshops in which a volunteer or representative will come directly to the students. We have also been working to bring greater visibility to the BIPOC community in our industry and the CCC.
There’s a real dearth of Mexican cheeses behind specialty cheese counters in the States. People sprinkle cotija on their tacos, but they don’t seem willing to view it as “artisan.” How have you seen this change since you started working in cheese?
JF: It is a very complicated change, you have to reach it with a specific state of mind regarding cheese. What is it, what should it taste like and what is the value that I think it should have? They are essential questions to begin to understand this topic. Not even in Mexico have we reached the point where you can find a quality cotija in all of Mexico. And it applies to all cheeses. Our biggest fight is the analogous cheeses, or “plastiqueso” as Geo baptized them. Sensory memory plays a vital role when it comes to approaching cheese. It is the memory of the soul. If we do not have it, we cannot legitimately approach cheese, which is why Europeans protect their traditions so thoroughly. No cheese in Mexico has a Denomination of Origin, even though the country does recognize them. I have seen lately there is more curiosity to know what is being made on this side of the border and we are playing our part, growing in innovation and self-exploring of our traditions. Hopefully one day we will see a wheel from Cotija Region of Origin in the United States, and other specialty cheeses produced in Mexico. There are also great cheesemakers with Latin American origins working in the U.S., they are carriers of invaluable knowledge, our traditions. Turning eyes over them may awaken a Latin-inspired cheese movement. Or as I would say in Spanish, “quesosmas chidos.”
That’s a great idea—and hopefully we can help turn an eye over them! Could you name a few of those cheesemakers? I’d love to know more about their work.
JF: Mariano Gonzalez works in Grafton and he is from Asunción, Paraguay. I am looking for more Latin American cheesemakers, I would like to understand how much immigrants are working in the dairy industry in the U.S.
Me, too, I bet it’s a lot. It’s probably due to Mexican people living and working in the States that Americans have any familiarity with Mexican and Central American cheeses. We know queso blanco, queso fresco, queso Oaxaca, queso Chihuahua. I’m curious, though, what cheeses we’re missing out on. What’s the Harbison of Central America?
JF: Much of Geo and Carlos’ work has focused on industry innovation in Mexico, they have been advocating for and working along with cheesemakers to take them out of the country to represent us in the World Cheese Awards. A cheese was born out of this effort, the Goat Cheese Wrapped in Avocado Leaf, a co-creation of Georgina Yescas with Sierra Encantada. [It] won the Best New Cheese award at the World Cheese Awards in 2014. The most awarded cheese creamery in Latin America at the World Cheese Awards is located in Querétaro, El Rancho San Josemaría. One of my favorites is [their] Viña Milagro, a pressed sheep’s milk cheese that is dipped in Tempranillo brine. The cheesemaker is Catalina Rivera. I remember chunking on the cheese when I was at the counter, sorry Geo and Carlos! It was the first sheep milk cheese I had ever tried. And then [there are] classic Italian-inspired cheeses produced in Guanajuato by Remo’s, a cheese factory led by an Italian master cheesemaker, Paderno Ponchielli, who was a pioneer in the production of mozzarella and burrata in our country.
At Lactography, we have begun to wash cheeses in our facilities in Mexico City. Inspired a little by Harbison, we had been looking for a washed rind for a long time, and because we couldn’t find one I decided to make it. I started trying with cider and from there it has evolved, it has gone through beer and Mexican sake. It is a subtle cheese and serves as an introduction to washed rinds for the Mexican palate, it had a much greater acceptance than we expected.
Are there specific cheesemaking regions in Mexico? Do the artisan makers you work with tend to cluster in specific areas?
JF: Cheesemakers work and live in specific areas but are not delimited [like] European regions. Mexico does not have a Denomination of Origin for its cheeses, so there is no specificity in working in one area or another, but there are cheeses rooted in their areas of origin such as Cotija, Bola de Ocosingo, Poro de Balancan, Queso Chihuahua. Carlos delimited the cheese areas in Mexico [in his research in 2008], dividing cheese production in Mexico into seven regions, mountain, center, south, coast, shoal, north, and independent. This classification is an ontological approach to the geographical indications of cheese in Mexico, which are very little explored and which teach us about climatic, soil, and geographical characteristics that affect the production of cheese and the animals that produce milk.
I could probably ask you about Mexican cheeses all day, but before we wrap up I also want to know, when someone asks you for a recommendation of an American-made cheese, what are some of your favorites?
JF: I must say that I haven’t tried as much as I would like, but some of my favorites are Winnimere from Jasper Hill, Point Reyes Original Blue, Crown Finish Caves Gatekeeper, that cheese blew my mind when I first tried it! Vermont Creamery Coupole, I have never seen a cheese so white, my OCD appreciates it. Cypress Grove Humboldt Fog, Parish Hill Creamery Cornerstone, Rogue River Blue, Grafton Clothbound Cheddar, Hoja Santa from the Mozzarella Company reminds me of Goat Cheese Wrapped in an Avocado Leaf and the taste of black beans cooked with hoja santa and topped with Queso Sopero. And Uplands Pleasant Ridge Reserve.
5 THINGS EVERY CHEESE PROFESSIONAL SHOULD KNOW
- Not all “cheese” is cheese. Not everything that shines is cheese—at least in Mexico there are a lot of cheeses made with non-milk ingredients. And it’s really important to understand the difference between them.
- Having the correct knife makes all the difference. Good knives are undervalued, it’s really important to have the proper knife to cut whole pieces. You wouldn’t like to open a wheel of Parmigiano with a blunt knife. I got mine from Bharbjt.
- It is a very physical job. Moving cheeses in a warehouse or cheese cave is a very physical and demanding job. You need to stretch and lift properly, or you can hurt yourself.
- Not all palates are the same. Taste is cultural, and we approach flavors through our experiences. For some cultures, certain types of textures or flavors might be considered a mistake. We should always approach other people’s culture with humility and never impose our perspective. Cheese is a very personal experience. You might not like all you taste, but that does not mean it is flawed. You need to understand the difference between personal preferences and cheese defects.
- You’ll find the most amazing people walking this path. It’s the most comfortable I have ever felt around people. Everywhere we go, cheese folks welcome us with open arms and lots of cheese—no matter if we speak the same language or come from different places, cheese is a universal language.