Monthly Archives: October 2008

Pénjamo. Mexican Goat Cheese Capital?


Food entrepreneurship is alive and well in Mexico. I am constantly amazed by the small start ups selling fruit cakes or home made flour tortillas or typical sweets or fruit liqueurs or crepes or cookies or, in this case, cheese. Penajamo, a small municipality (county roughly) in the state of Guanajuato in central Mexico has no less than four small cooperatives making goat cheese.

Now goat cheese is new to Mexico and is still far from being as well known and liked as it is in the United States, say. And Pénjamo is a center of big agriculture and meat processing plants. So how in the world did artisanal goat cheese making get under way.

At the Expigua livestock show in Irapuato last month, María Carmen and her niece Susanna who were demonstrating the products of the Joya de Lobos coop, explained.

About a decade ago, the parish priest somehow made contact with the Secretario de Desarrollo Económico y Turismo and with the French Embassy in Mexico City. As a result a French woman by the name of Solange Manier turned up in Pénjamo and spent several month teaching goat cheese making. Then she left and there’s been no further contact as far as I can tell. This, and other stories I heard, raise echoes of the mythic origins of many European cheeses, something I’ll talk about in another post.

Now they milk twice a day, refrigerating the evening’s milk for the following morning. Then they pasteurize the milk, coagulate it, wait twenty four hours, and mold it, and the fresh cheese is ready twenty four hours later. Apart from natural, they turn out cheeses rolled in ash, red pepper (pimiento), sesame, pecan, and one flavored with chipotle (very mildly flavored). They also make an aged cheese.

Their products are whisked off to Mexico City on the Flecha Amarilla bus line–much cheaper than using one of the messenger services. There they go to prestige restaurants (Águila y Sol, Ginos, Au Pied de Cochon), hotels (El Marquis, Fiesta Americana, Intercontinental) and organic stores (The Green Corner) and El Museo de Queso.

Cost: MN$25 for 200 grams (about US$2.50 for 4 ounces).

Another group.

If you’re interested in visiting, Joya de Lobos is at Matamorros 37-C, Col.Centro, Pénjamo, Guanajuato. The phone in Mexico is 469 692 3517 or Cel. 044 469 100 1419. Agustín and María Elena Gutiérrez are the proprietors. They can point you to other makers. Combine this with a visit to the pyramids, to the two Guanajuato tequila makers close to town, and to the birthplace of Padre Hidalgo, one of the leaders of the Mexican independence movement, and you have a lovely day.

Thinking Through Pollan’s Farmer in Chief: Preliminaries

OK. Here’s what I am going to do. Michael Pollan had thirteen printed pages for his Farmer in Chief article in the New York Times Magazine. I can’t churn out a response of that length all at once even if you wanted to read it. So I am going to tackle it in parts. Today I am just going to get some preliminaries off my chest.

Before I get started, one bitch and one clarification.

The bitch. Why can’t the NY Times in the on-line version of this article put in links to the sources that Pollan has used? There are a few desultory links to President Reagan or the Strategic Petroleum Reserve but since anyone can type in President Reagan these don’t exactly add much.

No what I want is a link to the source for statements such as “the food system uses more fossil fuel than any other sector of the economy–19 percent.” Now I’m sure Pollan’s not making this up. But if I want to assess the conclusions he draws, I need to know how he or his source is defining the food system–does he mean just farming, or farming plus processing, or farming plus processing plus distribution, or all this plus preparation and consumption at home or out, and so on. May be there’s common agreement about this among experts. But I think about food a good bit and if I’m ignorant of the standard definition of food system, so are a whole lot of other people.

The whole force of Pollan’s argument depends on a series of assertions of this kind. While I understand that the published version of the NY Times Magazine is not the place for reams of footnotes or perhaps not even for a few parentheses such as “as the recent study by the Center for X and Y shows”, I find it really frustrating to have to take all the assertions on faith. Presumably his fact checker asked him for the references so it wouldn’t have been too difficult to insert them in the on-line version.

Plus I just love collecting good references.

The clarifications. Running through this article, through much of Pollan’s other work, and through many other discussions of food policy are two related confusions that spring from running farming and food together.

1. Sorry, but farms do not produce food. They produce the raw materials for food (among other things). What goes out the farm gate (or down the path to the kitchen before there were gates) has to be processed and cooked before it is eaten. This is nothing new. It’s been going on since the first grinding of grains or culturing of milk. Even fresh lettuce has to have the root and the tough outer leaves cut off and the insect life removed.

So if we want to talk about food policy, surely we ought to include regulations governing processing, infrastructure for transport, regulations about safety, and nutritional advice to name just a few issues besides what goes on on the farm. Ah, I can imagine some readers saying, what goes on on the farm is the overwhelmingly most important part. I disagree. It’s a necessary part. But for much of history (it’s hard to find contemporary figures) processing and cooking took at least as much time and energy as (EDIT-THIS SHOULD BE FARMING NOT cooking). They introduced at least as many nutritional goodies and some baddies too.

Although Pollan starts out by talking about food policy, in fact the overwhelming bulk of the article is about farm policy.

2. And sorry, farms don’t just produce food for humans.

Farms produce fibers, fuel, hides, fats for industrial purposes, starch for industrial purposes etc. etc. It’s been going on since the beginning of farming. We all know about growing cotton and flax for fiber or pasturing sheep for their wool. But it goes much further. The major use of olives until the nineteenth century was to produce oil as the best industrial lubricant known in Europe. The major use of cattle in Mexico and Argentina until the nineteenth century was to produce tallow as a lubricant and hides for buckets, chests, clothings, saddles, ropes, tents.

So using maize to produce industrial products is not a perversion of farming. It’s a continuation of a millennia-old pattern of farming to produce all sorts of renewable resources. I agree that using maize for ethanol is not turning out to be the panacea as lots of environmentalists hoped a few years ago. But using crops for industrial purposes is here to stay.

Furthermore farms also produce food for animals. Most parts of the world do not have a year-round growing season. When the rains are torrential, when no rain falls for months on end, when the temperature drops in the winter and when the temperature soars in the summer, animals go hungry. A huge part of the history of farming is the history of producing food–hay, alfalfa, silage, grains–for the animals that feed (and clothe and in the past transport) us. Believing that cattle, for example, can survive on fresh grass that just springs up under their feet is just an illusion.

So farm policy is far more than just food policy, even if producing the raw materials of food is a very important part of farming. Farming produces multiple resources for humans and that’s not going to change either.

The next post on this article will look at how Pollan sets up his problem.

A Query about Banana Peel in Mexican Cooking

And one from Karen Howe.

“In a Mexican manuscript cookbook dated 1908 which I bought at a flea market in Mexico, I found a recipe for banana peel stew. The fruit was not used, only the peel, which was chopped up and fried in lard and then ground up with cloves and cinnamon. Other ingredients in the stew include tomatoes, onions, garlic, beef stock, wine, raisins, almonds, chiles, fried bread crumbs, oregano and parsley. I have never heard of this before and wonder if you have any idea where the dish originated.

The 90- page manuscript, which is charmingly chatty and enthusiastic and full of misspellings, contains recipes for a variety of moles and other traditional Mexican dishes.”

Lucky you.  I wish I ran into manuscript cookbooks in Mexican flea markets. What is the Spanish for the stew? Guisado?  Is the banana called simply platano or platano macho (plantain, which I assume it is). And how is the peel identified.  Is it fresh or dried or is that not specified?

I’ve never heard of banana peel being used this way but I will ask those who are more expert than I am.  Or perhaps a reader has run across such a recipe.

The peel appears to be a thickener along with the almonds and the breadcrumbs, but I wonder why.  Flavor? Economy?  The rest of the recipe appears to be fairly standard. As to provenance of the recipe (if not the recipe book), the hot country of the Gulf coast, I’d guess.

Love these mysteries.

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