I've been living in Costa Rica for about a month now. It's a magnificent country with dense jungles, white sand beaches and exotic wildlife that truly exemplifies the name “Rich Coast”….unless we’re talking about Costa Rican cheese, in which case it is the “Saddest Most Bland Coast Ever” or any equivalent Spanish translation thereof. I thought, "Spanish? Sounds like great cheese territory to me," hoping I'd discover all kinds of new Manchego-esque goodness.
Locals in fact eat a variety of "fresh" cheeses — rindless, unaged, high-water content varieties like queso palmita (soft and salty white cheese), cojita (similar texture to feta but lacking any flavor), turrialba (strange semisoft cheese that squeaks as you bite into it) and mild goat cheese. I spent some time working on a farm that makes its own cheeses and had the pleasure of being elbow-deep in a fresh batch of mozzarella made from milk I personally extracted from a cow. I was excited the finished product would be a part of that night’s meal.
All day I wondered, dreamed even, what dish the mozzarella would make its way into. Maybe it would be sandwiched into an heirloom tomato and basil caprese salad or perhaps baked on top of ziti. When dinnertime came around, I made sure to be first in line and eagerly scoured the table table looking for my prize. The table appeared to be cheese-less until I saw the very last dish: a personal-sized burned pizza pie cut into eight slivers, staring me in the eye. I wanted to apologize to the mozzarella. Hours of work and so much promise, only to be baked stone-dry on top of soggy bread and canned tomato sauce.
I came to the realization that cheese just doesn’t play the same role in Central American cooking as it does in other parts of the world. It is not treated as the delectable precursor to a fancy dinner party as it might here in the United States. Cheese in Central America is consumed largely as a subsistence food; like with Indian paneer, patrons rely on the proteins in the cheese as a staple part of their diet as an inexpensive meat alternative. Hard, aged or ripened cheeses are a rarity because the time and resources it takes to produce a good one are far greater than the time and resources needed to make a strange semisoft cheese that squeaks (albeit endearingly) when you bite into it. Visit Central America, embrace the natural beauty, and stay far, far away from the cheese.
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