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Queso Anyone?

Some of my best memories of growing up in Venezuela were travelling with my family — to the Andes, across the prairie region, into the desert, into the Amazon jungle and all along Venezuela’s gorgeous Caribbean coastline.

Wherever we went, we’d find la parada, a place to stop and eat and rest. A parada can be anything from a bus-top café to a roadside stall set up by a local in front of her home, with food, drink and sometimes souvenirs.

But for me, paradas were just an excuse to eat queso fresco, the Latino cheese found throughout what I like to call “Las Americas”: Mexico and Central and South America. Queso Fresco is made with cow, sheep or goat milk, but from las paradas in those days, it was mostly cow’s milk.

We’d eat it con cachapas y albaca [with corn pancakes, cooked al fresco, on the spot, eaten with a leaf of basil for flavourful greenery], or en arepas rellenas [stuffed into white cornmeal patties].

This is how I came to love queso fresco, as well as other Venezuelan cheeses, like Guayanes, queso de mano, el paisa, palmizulia and nata, each with a story and flavour of their own … for another time…

Queso fresco is brilliant in tortilla fillings, crumbled onto salads, in stuffings. My favourite way is to eat it straight up, with membrillo or guava jelly, roasted pistachios, slices of fresh or toasted baguette and a good sherry.

I’m featuring a lot of queso fresco in my classes these days, so I started to wonder who was making it. Were second generation Hispanics now living in Canada carrying on the tradition?

What I found was surprising.

Amarjit Singh is an Indian by birth, but he’s been making European-style cheese in Ingersoll, Ont., for 15 years, seven of them making queso fresco in the Salvadoran style.

He also makes queso estilo ranchero [rancher-style], Mexican-style queso blanco duro [an aged white hard cheese], la vaquita crema fresca [a salty kind of crème fraiche]. He tells me that queso fresco has an eight-week shelf life and can be aged up to three months.

In Quebec, Les Fromages Latinos is a company that makes queso fresco. Owner Eduardo Ibañez was born in Colombia. He calls himself a second-generation ganadero [cattleman-style] cheese-maker. He started his family business three years ago and makes his queso fresco in several styles and types, among them costeño [in the style of cheeses made along the Columbian coast], campesino [country-style] and duro [hard and aged].

The largest importer of Latin American foods in Canada is Tifco, short for Toronto International Farms in Etobicoke. They sell queso fresco from a farm outside Montreal, but they’ll be manufacturing here in Toronto in the near future, according to their PR rep Laura Frances.

In the meantime, the five queso fresco Tifco makes in the Mexican style are Asadero, Cotija, Queso Cremoso, Panela and Oaxaca. Go to their website www.tifco-canada.com for some great descriptions and tasting notes.

Here in Toronto, the Portuguese Cheese Company makes both the Mexican and Spanish version of queso fesco. My three favourite places to buy queso frescos are all in Kensington Market: La Perola, Latin American Emporium and Global Cheese.

Yours in good food and good quesos

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*Spanish for: "Mmm. Wow. That's good!"