February 28, 2013 by odbrie
Recently I had the amazing opportunity to visit Rancho San Josemaría in Querétaro, Mexico. Lucky for me, my brother and sister-in-law own an incredible restaurant (Erlum >cough, cough<) there and have befriended two delightful people Martin Lopez and Catalina Rivera. These two people are the owners of some adorable sheep and Rancho San Josemaría. Their cheese is unlike any other coming out of Mexico. Usually Mexican cheese is cow’s milk and soft (fresco, Oaxaca, chihuahua, etc). Their cheese is sheep’s milk, some aged, and some either smoked, washed in wine, or washed in herbs and oil.
A little background information on Martin and Catalina. They use to work in the big city (aka Mexico City) but gave up their lives and moved their family to Querétaro, bought some (ok, 34) sheep( East Friesian) , and starting Rancho San Josemaría. Though they did not know anything about raising sheep or making cheese they embarked on this journey to learn. Martin was able to travel to Wisconsin to learn the basics of cheese making and Catalina learned in Argentina about a year or so later.
We (Violetta, my mom, and myself) drove up to Rancho San Josemaría, currently located in Santiago de Querétaro, about 15 minutes from the city of Querétaro. They are renting the location for the time being but hope to be on their own land by November of this year. We were greeted by Catalina and one of the three farm dogs. We arrived during the last round of milking and were able to watch Martin milk the ewe’s and I was given the job of helping. As Martin put it, my brother had told him that I wanted to work with them, so I better start helping now. It was great to chat with them while milking. I learned that Martin is in charge of all the milking and selling of the cheese while Catalina is the cheesemaker. Both roles are incredibly important and they make a wonderful team as seen by the success of their cheese, the happiness in the sheep, and the way the speak of their lives. I learned that these sheep are milked once a day in the morning. I was there for the first time milking of some of these sheep. They were definitely not stoked to be milked for the first time but Martin explained that once they get milked for the first time they are completely calm( which I saw in a couple of the sheep). Some of them were kicking a bit while the other just happily ate.
After we milked the sheep it was time for the lambs to eat. The little guys were only about 1 month old. These sheep are born in January and May making Rancho San Josemaría’s milking season from January-November. These lambs might just be the cutest little things I ever did see. They are so full of life, playful, and happy to be held by Martin and Catalina. Their lives are like a dream. They are fed a diet of grass, hay, a bit of corn, and alfalfa (which grows abundantly in Querétaro) It was during this time that Martin told me his nickname for all the sheep. When they come in to be milked in the morning he called them “I love Ewe”. He said he has to say it in English because it doesn’t work translated. They produce a product for him that he can then use to provide for his family. He does love them.
After lunchtime we were given a tour of the cheese making facilities. It’s small. Incredibly small. Too small for the demand for their product. Like said above, they are moving to their own land by the end of the year and will have a bigger cheese making facility. Due to the space constraints they use the prior day’s milk to make the cheese each morning. Besides Catalina there is one other cheesemaker plus 2 student interns (that study gastronomy).
They make cheese everyday for 10 months out of the year. They have a fresh cremoso, a slightly aged red wine washed wheel, a smoked wheel, and an aged manchego-style cheese.
After we checked out the cheese making facility, we were treated to a delightful picnic of their cheeses. One was the fresh cremoso (the only cheese from this season that was ready when I visited in February), their aged wine-washed cheese, and their aged manchego-style. Catalina said that usually the manchego-style is aged about 6 months but this was aged about a year. The cheeses were amazing. I much say I loved the cremoso and the year-aged cheese. I couldn’t get enough. What I also couldn’t get over is that this operation has only been up and running 5 years and prior to this neither Martin or Catalina had any farm or cheesemaking experience.
We chatted a bit more while trying all these cheeses. I learned that they are hoping to export to the US by next year. The new facility that they are building will be FDA compliant in order to expedite the exportation process. They also have 7 other countries that they will be exporting too. I learned about the cheese awards they won. They won medals at the 2011 World Cheese Awards. They competed against 500+ cheeses from 34 countries. Not only were they the first cheesemakers from Mexico to win, but two of their cheeses won! Their cremoso took a silver medal home and their semi hard took home a bronze. Not bad for people, who at the time, had only been making cheese for 3 years. Not bad at all!
Of course like all good things our visit had to end. Not only is the cheese delicious, the sheep are adorable and Martin and Catalina are two of the most lovely, humble people I have met. They are incredibly hard-working (only taking off about 1-2 months a year) and dedicated to their sheep and their cheese. Not many people would take time out of their busy day on a farm to indulge the sister, mother, and mother-in-law of a local chef, but they did.
I asked Martin and Catalina if they intend to compete in other cheese competitions and they said yes. I asked them if they were excited to be able to go to these competitions and they explained that though their cheese would be there, they would not. As they put it, the sheep don’t stop producing milk just so they can go to a cheese competition or conference.
If you’d like to learn more about Rancho San Josemaría there are plenty of resources. Follow them on Facebook at Quesos DeOveja or follow them on Twitter
@QuesosOvejaSJM. Their website is http://quesosdeoveja.com/. Finally, you can listen to Catalina talk about their cheese on an episode of Cutting the Curd with Anne Saxelby. You can find it here: Episode 95: Mexican Cheeses.
To see more picture click on ’em: