How Quesillo Melted Mexican Hearts
Mexicans are very proud of their quesillo, a unique cheese. The story of its creation goes back to Reyes Etla, in the Mexican state of Oaxaca.
Legend has it that teenager Leobarda Castellanos García was minding the milk to make cheese when she got distracted and the milk curdled beyond its ideal point. To keep from being scolded by her parents, Leobarda added hot water to the mix, turning it into an elastic paste with a mild flavor.
After tasting Leobarda’s original creation, the Castellanos saw a unique opportunity to make some money and began producing the mix regularly. Since it was not as firm as other cheeses, they were reluctant to call it cheese, naming it “quesillo” (little cheese) instead.
Although there is no official record of this legend, Oaxacans from Reyes Etla tell it with pride.
Also known as Oaxaca cheese, quesillo is made with a mix of fresh and acidic milk, which is left to curdle until solid. Afterward, cheese makers cut it into cubes that they then melt in hot water. Once melted, the cheese is stretched into strings, quesillo’s distinctive trait. Finally, the strings are rolled into a ball. Mexicans buy balls of Oaxaca cheese in markets and dairies throughout the country.
Quesillo manufacture is one of the primary sources of income in Reyes Etla. Many families prepare it using the artisan technique. This practice is at risk because industrial quesillo is cheaper, but Reyes Etla’s people say that homemade quesillo is much tastier.
“Oaxaca cheese is one of the most sought-after products in my store,” said Mariano Vázquez Rodríguez, a store employee from Oaxaca. “Usually, we run out of it in three days. People buy it for its flavor, which is different from queso fresco or panela. Its price varies between 70 and 80 pesos [3.5 and 4 dollars] per kilo, which makes it affordable.”
Quesillo has less fat than other cheeses. It has a little more than the panela type, the favorite of athletes or dieters.
“Many people use it on molletes [open-faced bean melt sandwiches] or empanadas, since it melts when heated,” said Vázquez Rodríguez. “This is what people like. They also have it with pickled peppers as a snack or just as string cheese.”
Mexicans also enjoy quesillo in sandwiches, zucchini dishes, chilaquiles, and enchiladas.
(Translated and edited by Gabriela Olmos. Edited by Melanie Slone.)