Making Cheese in a Tropical Setting, A Visit to Quesos Monte Azul in Chimirol de Rivas, Costa Rica
When we have visited Costa Rica in the past, we noticed that most of the cheese here falls into the “fresh category” but never really put much thought into why that might be. We usually just chalked it up to which foods are popular here and that a wedge of hard, funky cheese didn’t really fit in. Once we discovered the Monte Azul brand of cheese as something more relatable to our palates and one that was possible to pair with wine, we found out the information we had been missing. Cheese is different in Costa Rica for good reason! It just so happened that Monte Azul was near where we were staying so we arranged for a visit there. Our entry will share the things we learned that day.
Let’s set the scene before we get into our cheese education. We arrived at the bus stop close to Monte Azul and luckily someone else was going that way so he volunteered to help us find it. We walked down the road towards a bridge with an amazing view, a great way to start! I knew from my research that the location was formerly a hotel so I was curious to see what this cheese making facility/hotel would look like. We saw the logo that we were familiar with and knew we were there. Carlos, one of the co-owners, greeted us and brought us to the open-air reception area. Randy, the primary cheesemaker, joined us for our chat.
It turns out we all used to live in California near San Francisco and Sonoma where cheesemaking is a big deal. Carlos is actually from Costa Rica so they decided to move back here over 10 years ago for a change of pace. They hadn’t really planned on making cheese, that just kind of happened. They wanted to serve cheese to their guests at the hotel but when their supplier stopped being reliable, they figured they’d give it a shot themselves. And if you know the story about goats, they had 3 to start which turned into 85 in no time. Once they started making cheese full-time, they decided to house the goats off-site with one of the local farmers. Today that farmer delivers the milk twice a day and Carlos and Randy only need to focus on the cheesemaking side of things.
Do you know why farmers started making cheese? I’ve heard two reasons. The first was because if you milk your animal instead of using it for meat, you’ll have nourishment all the time. And if you turn your milk into cheese, it will last longer than the milk will. The other is that animals up North produce more milk during the warmer months than the cooler months. The animal’s body requires more energy to maintain their body temperature and then there is less energy available to produce milk. Herein is our first reason that cheesemaking here is different, cheese isn’t necessary in a tropical culture. Animals can produce milk year round here, therefore, there’s no reason to age or save cheese because you can always make more!
We know that people in Costa Rica have a different diet than those in the US. Meals are more focused on fruits, vegetables, rice and beans, meat, tortillas and coffee. Did you know that the animals eat differently here too? Not something I’d ever really thought about. Goats eat guava and banana leaves here so their milk tastes differently than their up North cousins. This is another reason that the cheese here is different, the flavor.
Let’s move onto the changes in process. As we mentioned this is a tropical climate, meaning, it’s HOT here. It’s also pretty humid and what comes with humidity is moisture and mildew. Ever notice that your hand towel in the bathroom never dries? It’s important to consider moisture here! In Europe they age cheeses in baskets and wooden boxes, but that would be hard here with all that moisture. The molds they have chosen to form the cheese need to be plastic instead in order to stay clean and sterile. A fun side effect that comes from this: round feta cheese instead of square.
What are the two halves of processing the milk? Curds and Whey! The whey needs to be disposed of since only the curds are used to make the cheese so they pump this biproduct out into a big tank. Not sure that this is all that unusual for the process but the local farmers like it since they can turn it into cattle feed. Carlos joked that other neighbors like it too because their dogs get a treat when they walk by.
Going back to that first question I had: why is their only fresh cheese here? We already covered that aged cheese is not necessary since milk is readily available but it’s also harder to make with that humidity issue. In Europe they make cheese in caves, which some do use actual caves underground but other’s have to simulate that environment on-site. It’s no different here in Costa Rica. Did you know that refrigerators function by removing humidity? This seems like just what they’d need here but there is some amount of humidity required for the process. They’ve actually created their “cave” in what seems like a big walk in refrigerator. We got to step inside there and we were impressed how much it smelled like cheese. We actually compared it to our experience in the cheese cave in Italy. Man do we love going to visit cheese!
What do you think of when someone mentions goats? I think of cheese, of course, but people in Costa Rica relate them to medicine. Historically people would have a goat in their back yard just in case they needed goats milk. Seems a little strange right? But they find it to be a great way to sooth an achy stomach. So when some Costa Rican’s hear about goats milk cheese, it’s something they need to get used to. This made me wonder if there are sheep here. Carlos said they are part of the agricultural industry but are used more for meat instead of milk. Too bad, I love that stinky, funky cheese!
After all this learning, Randy and Carlos brought us out to see the casitas where their guests used to stay and where artists-in-residence will stay. They were tucked in the back of the property by the river. What a beautiful piece of paradise! They designed this area as a place to come and reflect, create art, or write a book. Wow! What a great idea. The cabins were beautiful and all oriented so that you feel like you’re all alone in your space. It made me want to come and stay for a bit. And hey, there’s all this tasty cheese here too.
In addition to the handful of casitas, there is a main gallery where art is hanging and artists can spread out or collaborate together. This is where Carlos told us we’d do some cheese tasting. Really, we get to eat cheese in addition to finding out all this cool information, okay I guess we can do that. We took a few minutes to look around while they prepared our samples.
Our tasting included seven cheeses all arranged in a “cheese clock”.
1:00 Chèvre goat cheese log
3:00 Santa Lucia
6:00 Chirripo Negro
7:00 Chirripo Blanco
9:00 Terraba “dirt ball”
11:00 Big Blue
All of their cheeses are produced using raw milk. This is a topic that can be a little touchy in the US with it’s pasteurization rules but some say it’s a great way to get all your vitamins and microbes. And did you know that goats milk has small fat globules so it’s easier to digest? They’re even using vegetarian rennet so these cheeses check all kinds of boxes!
One of the disclaimers that they gave before we started tasting was that they’ve done a lot of experimenting to create their 30 cheeses and, although they might resemble certain cheeses, they will be different since they are made from goat’s milk in Costa Rica.
We began our tasting with the chèvre goat cheese log. Did you know that chèvre shouldn’t be dense? I do now. This cheese was tangy, soft and smooth. I felt like I wanted to eat some pineapple alongside this cheese.
Santa Lucia is named after a flower that blooms in Costa Rica at the beginning of every year. It is modeled to be similar to pecorino or asiago which are typically made with sheep milk. It smelled like goats milk, salt and very rich with a waxy texture and salty and savory flavors that remind you of umami!
Monterrey is somewhat similar to Monterrey Jack and is the only cow’s milk cheese we sampled that day. I tasted this cheese before and based my pairing on the cheese being comparable to Parmesan. The pairing worked out great with that assumption. You could pick up aromas of salt, milk and tangy aromas. The flavor was salty and funky. It was such a tasty, bold cheese.
Up next was Chirripó Negro, named after Chirripó, Costa Rica’s highest peak, that is viewable from Monte Azul. Can you see the ash on the cheese? It’s actually made from crushed up coffee shells, another Costa Rican touch! Cheesemakers like to use ash in cheese in order to reduce the acid. Another new factoid for me! When we tried this one at home we could smell the cave, such a good sign with cheese. We thought it was a great pairing with a Chilean Sparkling wine. When we tried this one at Monte Azul, the edge tasted so crunchy and we could really pick up the goats milk flavors. And it’s so pretty to look at!
You may have guessed that the Chirripó Blanco is also named after that famed mountain, but did you know that these two cheeses start out with the same processes and just use different molds? There were rich milk aromas, flavors of salt and a texture that wasn’t quite hard but firm. I decided to pair the cheese with a fig and that was a great idea! When we tasted a second piece that was slightly larger, you could really pick up barnyard aromas of hay and straw.
Tasting the Terraba cheese came with a test, “What do you taste?” Randy asked. We just started throwing out ideas: balsamic vinegar? Worcestershire sauce? basil in a tomato sauce? black pepper? They’ve had people tell them it tastes like roast beef or pastrami. We were headed in that direction. It was definitely interesting and we noticed it’s texture to be a little drier than chèvre. This is one of their new cheeses so you might have a hard time finding it. I wondered what type of wine we could pair with it?
Knowing how much I like blue cheese, all of you know I was excited to see that we’d be finishing out our tasting with the Big Blue. Neil and I picked up aromas of goats and funky, crusty blue cheese with a tangy flavor that tingled my tongue. Yum! We had the chance to take a second tasting of a colder piece which was a little creamier.
What a great tasting! We are pretty familiar with their brand from purchasing four of them in the store but now we’ve had the chance to try even more. Since Neil and I see cheese as half of a great pairing, the topic of wine did come up that day and they had a recommendation of a place where I could order some boutique level wines. I was delighted to hear this, and have already started the process of ordering my first case of wine from a San José distributor.
Our time at Monte Azul was coming to a close since the bus would be arriving to pick us up, so we all made our way to the gate. Wow, what an opportunity to learn about tropical cheese, see how it’s all done and even get a chance to taste so many samples! It was a terrific afternoon! Thanks so much to Carlos and Randy for spending that Monday afternoon with us. We can’t wait to come out again!
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