Georgina Yescas

25th February 2016

Words: Adam Park
Photographs: Carlos Reyes

25th February 2016

Words: Adam Park
Photographs: Carlos Reyes

Can you imagine Mexican cuisine without cheese? It’s in everything: quesadillas, enchiladas, frijoles, tacos, you name it. And yet few Mexicans ever think of cheese – especially not the stringy, rubbery substance that passes as cheese throughout the country – as the star of the show, a delicacy to be savoured by itself. Call it the Mexican cheese paradox. Fifteen years ago, Georgina Yescas and her brother Carlos, who now own the Lactography cheese shop in Mexico City, set out to untangle this paradox. Their idea was to help small, artisanal producers around the country bring their cheese to a wider audience. They ended up taking several producers all the way to the World Cheese Awards.

We meet Georgina at her tiny shop in Mercado Roma, a thriving food hall in the upmarket La Roma district, and before heading back to her place for dinner she guides us across the unexpectedly wide spectrum of Mexican queso. How about this lusciously creamy unpasteurised goat’s cheese from Guanajuato, or this hard sheep’s cheese that tastes like Manchego, or this cow’s cheese from Tabasco that’s smoked in pepper leaves? Yes, yes, yes. It’s tempting to make comparisons but we hold our tongues. “What makes me most mad is when people say ‘Oh, this is as good as European cheese,’” laughs Georgina. “Don’t even go there!”

After this whirlwind tour, we speed away in her tiny yellow car – perfect for a cheese dealer, we think – to Mixcoac, an old neighbourhood in the southwest of the city. Georgina parks in an underground garage and we head up to her small, wood-paneled apartment in a building that belonged to her grandmother. The theme for dinner quickly becomes apparent: there’s fideo seco1 made with a 24-month Cotija cheese; there’s a Bola de Ocasingo cheese stuffed with pork mince; and then Georgina serves an amazing three-cheese cheesecake with guava marmalade. We finish off with the Hoja de Aguacate goat’s cheese that won best newcomer at the World Cheese Awards. If we ever doubted the quality and variety of Mexican queso, those doubts have now, thanks to Georgina, melted away.

Continued below...

You grew up in Mexico City. What was food like in your family?

I come from a very traditional background, so for the women in my family cooking was a very big deal – it was a sign of love. I was always in the kitchen with them. We had amazing food, great ingredients, and my grandmother was so intense about it – she’d make everything from scratch. She’d ground the corn to make the masa for tamales2, she made her own mole with over 20 ingredients. It was really interesting for me.

Were you an adventurous eater as a kid?

When I was six years old I loved to eat frog’s legs – one of my aunts was very good at cooking them. And I remember, aged four or five, going to a fancy restaurant for a special occasion and my father buying me a chocolate souffle. It was like a punch in the face – in a good way! The texture, the taste: it was so different. I think that’s why I don’t like quick and easy food. It takes me 20 or 30 minutes at the very least to prepare a meal. I like to complicate things!

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What’s your typical day in terms of food?

For breakfast I’ll usually eat whatever’s left over from the night before, but my favourite breakfast is papaya with cottage cheese and honey. I drink a lot of black tea, which I picked up from living in the north of Germany, so my teapot is always close to hand.
Lunch might be tacos from somewhere near the market – taco suadero is a good one. I love Indian food, which isn’t great in Mexico City but I try to make it at home. So for dinner I might have a curry or mole poblano. I lived in Brazil for a while and I miss the food – especially the seafood – so I cook some dishes from there as well.

I remember, aged four or five, going to a fancy restaurant for a special occasion and my father buying me a chocolate souffle. It was like a punch in the face – in a good way

It sounds like you’ve travelled a lot.

I was in Germany as part of my studies – I was doing a degree in International Relations and part of the course required a period of time overseas. I remember it being really, really cold and my host mother was really tough on me. She’d force me to go outside in the snow. “If your lungs don’t get strong for the winter, you’ll be sick all the time. So come out and pick up some apples.” Eventually I agreed and afterwards she made me the most amazing apple strudel.
In Germany I met a lot of Brazilians and fell in love with the culture, so I decided to change my focus and go to Brazil. When I got there I wanted to learn three things: how to samba, how to play an instrument and how to cook feijoada3.

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Are you always on the lookout for new food experiences?

Always. When I’m travelling I love going to food markets and eating street food. I also love going to supermarkets, because in every country they are so different. I’d much rather hunt down something that locals eat than go and see a monument or a museum. And whenever I go to a different country I like to eat with local families.

When I’m travelling I love going to food markets and eating street food. I’d much rather hunt down something that locals eat than go and see a monument or a museum

When did cheese become part of your life?

My brother Carlos wanted to start Lactography about eight years ago and I thought he was crazy. I was planning to be a chef, but I had back surgery and couldn’t be on my feet for 14 hours a day. Then Carlos brought me to a cheese tasting in Chiapas and I met all the cheese makers and immediately fell in love. We knew that nobody in Mexico cared about cheese and we wanted to change that, so we went into business together. I became not just a sister but also a business partner.

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How is cheese perceived in Mexico?

It’s very different to Europe where you would eat it as a course on its own. Here, it’s never a main dish or ingredient, and so people are very reluctant to spend money on it – it’s not considered to be as valuable as meat or something. It doesn’t help that people are used to eating the same cheese all the time – variations on a slightly rubbery, dry cheese that is produced from state to state, crumbled, grated, grilled or fried with quesadillas, tacos, enchiladas, and so on.

I’d always go to this taqueria with my grandmother. They sell the most amazing milanesa taco with nopales [cactus] – that’s a breakfast taco
Georgina on her favourite Mexico City restaurants – see Address Book

Opening a cheese shop mustn’t have been easy.

It was tricky. I went to Europe with Carlos to visit other cheese shops and we learned a lot. We looked at places like Neal’s Yard in London and then we did what we could with the space we had, which wasn’t a lot. The store means a lot to me now because it’s part of our family history. It’s something my brother and I decided to do together. After our dad died, it was important to us to stand on our own two feet and really make something of it.

Do you spend a lot of time going around Mexico looking for new cheeses?

We did at first, but now people tend to come to us in the shop, since our name became more noticeable. They’re mostly good, maybe with one or two little technical problems that they can easily solve.

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Do you have a favourite Mexican cheese-maker?

I have a few. One is Señor Ever, who makes a double cream cheese called Queso de Cuadro. He lives in a very isolated place in Chiapas, at the entrance to a forest, with no electricity, no phone. He has 25 cows and I’m pretty sure he sells us his whole production. He’s certified organic too.

That’s amazing.

Imagine that: you don’t have a phone or electricity but you took the time to certify your milk, because you think it’s important. Now he’s teaching his son to make cheese. Which is great because most of the young people in the region want to go to university, not stay at home and learn to do what their parents do.
Then there’s Regina Olvera…

On The Menu

Dinner with Georgina Yescas
Mexico City, December 2015

To eat:

Bread from La Bohéme bakery
Fideo Seco with 24-month Cotija cheese
Bola de Ocasingo cheese stuffed with pork mince
Triple cheesecake with guava marmalade (recipe)
Hoja de Aguacate goat’s cheese

To drink:

Jessica’s Bacanora cocktail
Coffee from Chiapas
Various beers (including Tenebrosa pale ale and Minerva El Dorado IPA)
Membrillo liqueur

Who’s that?

She’s a vet in Huitzilac, which is about an hour away from Mexico City. It’s quite a dangerous area, but Carlos went to see her and we decided to sell all her cheese. One day we were chatting about making a cheese with flowers and straight away she started developing it. After a few months, it won “best new cheese” at the World Cheese Awards.

What was that like?

I remember watching the judges with our cheese and they were being so slow. My heart was leaping about. I don’t know what I must have looked like – I was wearing red sparkling boots and a large flower in my hair. They kept having to remind me that they weren’t finished yet. They smelled the cheese and turned it around. Eventually I saw them reach out and put a gold sticker on it. Regina’s cheese had won! It was an incredible moment.

Lactography is at Querétaro 225, Local 21 Col. Roma Norte, DF, 06700 Mexico; www.lactography.com

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  1. A Mexican noodle dish
  2. A traditional Mesoamerican dish made of masa (a starchy dough, usually corn-based), which is steamed in a corn husk or banana leaf
  3. A traditional stew made of black beans and pork

Posted 25th February 2016

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Words: Adam Park
Photographs: Carlos Reyes

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