Rediscovering Traditional Cheesemaking

Rico Milan is the founder of Queso Salazar, based in Livermore, California. Queso Salazar is a traditional cheesemaking company that produces queso fresco and queso Oaxaca. Its cheeses can be found at several Bay Area farmers' markets. CHOW.com is proud to be a sponsor of the Eat Real Festival on August 27–28 in Oakland, California, where Rico Milan and his family will be appearing.

When my wife's parents, Moises and Estrela Salazar, moved to Livermore 16 years ago to retire, they left behind their cattle ranch in Oaxaca and over 54 years of making traditional Mexican cheeses.

Once they got up here, though, they couldn’t find the delicious queso Oaxaca that's so loved throughout Mexico—at least the kind they had made their whole lives with ancestral methods. So after finding raw cow's milk through a dairy about 200 miles away, they started making the cheese for our family. When the neighbors got a taste, it wasn't long before word of their product spread throughout the entire Oaxacan community along the Central Coast from Monterey to Half Moon Bay.

Seeing how much people loved the cheese, I thought it would be great to start the business here, so we saved money under the mattress and finally opened the plant last year. Everyone in the family is an artisan cheesemaker. All of Moises and Estrela's 11 kids grew up learning everything about the business, from manufacture to delivery to caring for the cows. Most help in the plant and even my daughter and nephew are beginning to learn the traditional methods. That's three generations!

Restarting an Ancient Method

When I first had the idea to restart Queso Salazar, I thought I could just get the milk and then Moises and Estrela could make the magic happen, but it didn't work out that way. The pasteurized milk was too "clean" for queso Oaxaca. So I played with the cultures until we could get the pH low enough.

Real queso Oaxaca has to be made in small batches and worked by hand. And the ingredients can’t be substituted with cheap alternatives like the synthetic rennet used in larger production facilities. In fact, Moises and Estrela are adamant about sticking to tradition—our rennet, made from the stomach of cows, has to be imported from Oaxaca. It's the only place we can find the real kind.

After making the curds, we cook them in brine made with kosher salt at a high temperature, manually stirring it until the curds stick together into a large piece of cheese. This washes out a lot of fat and helps to give queso Oaxaca its distinctive flavor and texture. Then we stretch it out into strings that are rolled into a ball, almost like yarn, or shape it into bricks. The taste is like an un-aged Monterey Jack, and it is the best cheese for quesadillas or empanadas.

All in all we make two 300 gallon batches a day. It’s really a long 12-hour day, even with three generations helping out. But we're all happy keeping the love of the art of cheesemaking alive.

Moises and Estrela are so respected and honored by the communities along the coast that people know them by sight. They love talking to curious shoppers at farmers' markets about how the queso Oaxaca should be used and what the cheesemaking process is like. My in-laws' English might not be very good, but if people are patient enough to listen, they love most of all to talk about their cheese.

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