On my last trip to Playa del
Carmen on the Mayan Coast of Mexico, I finally
worked up the nerve to corner the young Mennonite
men who – always in twos – walk 5th Ave., Playa’s main promenade,
laden with traditional Mexican mesh bags. 

Every time I visited, I wondered what it was they were doing
here, walking briskly, carrying bags, making minimal eye contact
with tourist and scads of sarong-and-bikini clad girls, shamelessly
gawking at them.  

Now I know: having witnessed a transaction from afar, between a
tourist couple and the two overall-clad, blue-eyed
Spanish-speakers, I managed to deduce that they’re selling
cheese
.  

Well! Off I went with my camera and some pesos with my husband
rushing after me with our two-year-old, fighting with the stroller
through the evening crowds.  

The gents and I, looking incidentally a bit like a Mennonite
wife in that dress…

What I got was some fresher-that-fresh rolled-up plait of
Oaxaca cheese, a native Mexican cow’s milk cheese
very much akin to mozzarella, and a photo! 
(They were of course none too pleased, but I kinda bartered for the
photo with a substantial purchase.)  

The Mennonite colonies in Mexico settled mostly the north of the
country in the state of Chihuahua, around 1922. They came from
Canada in search of more religious freedom, at the behest of then
President Alvaro Obregón. Obregón gave them a good price on
stretches of dry, dusty northern land in the hopes that their
farming skills would turn it around. And farm they did, supplying
the country with wheat, Canadian oats, corn, apples, live stock and
cheese. While there are no large colonies close to the state of
Quintana Roo (where Playa del Carmen is), there is a large
settlement in Belize, just two hours south, from whence the cheese
vendors could be coming.  

Mennonite or Native Mexican Oaxaca – Who Does it
Better?

Oaxaca cheese is one of the first things I buy
when I get to Mexico. Originating in the state of Oaxaca, Mexico,
the cheese is white, mild, semi-soft and has a buttery flavour.
Best of all for my childish soul, it’s stringy, and comes wound in
a ball that looks like rope. It’s one of the most popular Mexican
cheeses as it’s perfect for melting, and melted
cheese pervades much of Mexican cuisine from region to region.
 

Because of its popularity, it’s readily available in Mexican
grocery stores. But for some reason, I never thought to look for it
back home, in Toronto. This time, having tried the Mennonite
version, I decided to do a little comparison of what’s
available…

And I have to say, I like the
fresh, by-weight style of Puebla Oaxaca that’s
sold at the deli counters in Mexican grocery stores the best, which
I also found here in Toronto, at Mexican Dry Goods in
Kensington Market.
 

It has a beautiful, slightly rubbery, texture with a mild acidity,
medium saltiness, and the perfect amount of buttery flavour.
 

Hector of Mexican Dry Goods, (200 Baldwin
Street, Kensington Market, Toronto, (416) 542-1486) imports his
Oaxaca cheese from the southern state of Puebla, and says the large
ball of thick, ribbon-like cheese is particular because the Puebla
cheese makers use similar machinery to stretch the cheese (a method
we know as “Pasta Filata”) as they do to make traditional Puebla
cloth. 

I also buy the prepackaged
Oaxaca cheese in Mexico, which I found here in Toronto at
Perola, in Kensington Market.
This version in Mexico is much harder, less
stringy, less salty with virtually no acidity, and has a very
similar flavour to mozzarella.

The Canadian version (pictured here), I found
even less distinct in flavour than the prepackaged Mexican version.
I don’t mind it, but it’s certainly not like the fresh stuff. I
would reserve this grade for melting only.

Prepackaged Oaxaca cheese from Perola, 247
Augusta Ave, Kensington Market, Toronto, ON, (416)
593-9728

And finally, the
Mennonite Oaxaca
was perhaps the mildest. It came in a
knotted clear plastic bag, gliding around inside from the fresh
creamy coating. It was the most buttery of all, with a clear taste
of “farm-fresh” to it, however the texture was much too rubbery for
my taste, as it actually squeaked on my molars when I chewed. 
I’m sure though, that this is an acquired taste.

Can you Get Oaxaca Cheese in Your Town?  What do you
use it for?


Food Products
are featured Thursdays on Bazaar.

Related: