As three weeks of traveling in Bolivia and Paraguay on assignment for various journalistic outlets comes to a close (What, you thought I only wrote captions for weird goat pics?), I’ve finally compiled all my cheesy experiences to share with you.
After a decade of exploring South America (some of it on assignment for culture: the word on cheese), I’ve learned that cheese is ubiquitous throughout the continent. It’s a vital source of protein and other nutrients, and a provides a crucial income for people living in primarily rural areas.
Most of the cheese produced in South America is fresh, due to a lack of refrigeration, hot climate, or both. There are some semi-maduro and maduro (aged) cheeses produced in Argentina, which is the world’s largest producer of Parmesan (not to be confused with Parmigiano Reggiano) outside of Italy. Ecuador, Uruguay, and Chile, also produce some aged cheeses, due to the large numbers of Swiss, German, and Italian immigrants. But these are specialty products, and generally not consumed by the general populace for economic reasons. A limited number of these products are exported to the United States.
In South America, cheese is used as a garnish, or as an integral part of street and regional foods. Depending upon the country or region, cheeses may be made with cow’s or goat’s milk, or, less frequently, sheep’s milk. I’ve read that llama’s milk has also been consumed in the Andean Highlands and used for cheesemaking, but have been unable to substantiate these facts (regardless, it’s not something that’s done these days, so far as I know).
In Bolivia, one finds both cow’s and goat’s milk cheeses, although goats are raised only in specific regions, where vegetation is sparse.
As the poorest country in South America, cheese is definitely an important source of nutrients for many Bolivians. I talked to some market vendors who produced cheese from their few goats and cows, but, to be honest, I avoided purchasing any of their cheese (anyone who’s spent time in a Bolivian marketplace understands where I’m coming from). It’s not a diss on the country, but a reflection on the poverty and lack of adequate sanitation. Still, I remained listeriosis-free after having some “fresh” cheese on the final afternoon of a three-day trek in the Cordillera Real. It had been without refrigeration the entire time, and I would never have eaten it of my own accord, but when your guide prepares your lunch for you (especially in a country where so many go hungry), you eat it.
More palate-pleasing is the use of sweetened, crumbly cheese in empanadas, or gooey, melty cheeses in same. Grated cheese is frequently used atop fideos (pasta). It’s in Paraguay, however, that cheese is elevated to celebrity status, appearing in many of this tropical country’s national dishes. It’s a staple ingredient, alongside corn and corn flour, manioca, and yerba mate. And oh, how delicious Paraguayan food is.
The country has a strong indigenous influence from its native Guarani people, and is South America’s only bilingual country. The tropical climate makes it an agricultural haven, and it’s also a major cattle ranching state.
While lacking in natural resources, a relatively high number of Paraguay’s rural people (which is actually the minority of the population) own small plots of land, so keeping a small herd of dairy cattle (or, less frequently, goats) is common.
Paraguyan food reflects its indigenous heritage, as exemplified by chipa (corn flour-and-cheese hardtack); mbeju (manioc, cheese, and lard pancakes); empanadas that make neighboring Argentina’s appear anemic by comparison; and chipa guazu, a soufflé-like, cheesy cornbread. Paraguay’s strong German influence also means kuchen, quark-stuffed bread, excellent ice cream, dulce de leche, and other decadent, dairy-centric desserts. Fluid milk is also consumed, in mate cocido (a sweetened tea), and liquados (fruit shakes).
Thank god I’m lactose intolerant, because it’s prevented my ass from getting even fatter (lard being the other much celebrated ingredient, which is why the baked goods are so damned delicious).
A few days ago, I stayed at Granja El Roble, an agriturismo and working farm up north in the department of Concepcion. It’s owned by a German-Paraguayan couple, who make their own cheese from the milk of their cows. As a special treat for myself, the cheese geek, and a couple of German backpackers, they prepared raclette for us one night (yes, I know it’s Swiss, but when one is on the other side of the world, foods from neighboring countries can seem like home).
Making raclette in the jungle ranks as one of the most unusual experiences I’ve had. Yet it was delicious, and it reminded me of why food is so integral to travel.
Whether taken out of context, like the raclette, or prepared in their place of origin following tradition, these types of culinary experiences usually make for lasting memories. The fact that cheese is often the conduit is just the proverbial whipped cream on the tres leches cake.
[Photo credits: Laurel Miller]