Posted by: acooksca | 04/03/2009

Is There Hand-made Artisan Cheese in Argentina?

arg-cheese-1aBefore heading to Argentina I dropped by some of my favorite shops in The Bay Area. At Cheese Plus in San Francisco, Ray confided that he has only one Argentinean cheese called Regianito, an inexpensive grating cheese used by restaurant kitchens. Alma of the East Bay’s Pasta Shop, Lassa Skinner at Oxbow Wine and Cheese in Napa and Dean and Deluca in the wine country all said they don’t carry any Argentinean cheeses.

Onec in Argentina, friends of ours who live near Buenos Aires directed us to the prestigious Valentini food shop of Patio Bullrich. This stylish shop offers imported and local dry goods and salumi. Of the thirty cheeses most were predictable European imports such as Gruyere, Gouda and Parmigiano. Few were local.

We asked the cheese seller to select a couple of Argentina’s best. We purchased a semi-firm goat’s milk, a firm sheep’s milk, a cow’s milk blue, crackers, a package of great looking local prosciutto and we hurried back to our hotel for a tasting.

We found a hint of the chili powder accent in the goat’s milk cheese but otherwise no discernable flavor to its processed, rubbery texture. This cheese might work for melting but not as a table cheese. The sheep’s milk lacked any of the musky flavors we expect in a sheep’s milk while the texture was unpleasantly thin and dry .
Fortunately, the cow’s milk blue cheese from a large producer in the province of Santa Fe, was a success. It was richly textured, tasting of sweet cream, medium salt and a sturdy blue vein. Indeed, in the weeks we spent in Argentina we kept seeing this blue on salads throughout the country.

But I still felt there must be artisan cheeses in Argentina, a country of enormous cattle ranches in the north and sheep lands in the south. We searched the best shops, checked out food halls, ate in top restaurants in Buenos Aires and in bistros offering local products in Patagonia. We kept finding the same bulk processed cheeses.

We talked to everyone we could. “Is there hand-made artisan cheese in Argentina?”
Asking the question kept bringing up the same answer…“not really.” The reasons were pretty uniform, also. Some were social, some geographic and some about the political mismanagement that Argentina is so famous for.

“Argentina is a country of Italians who speak Spanish”
A modest start in the seventeenth century brought a few adventuring Spanish. They expanded slowly from the coast to establish enormous tracks of land with free range cattle for hides and tallow. Harsh conditions in Western Europe during the late 1800’s caused a flood of immigrants looking for work and land.

They labored on the docks and on ranches the size of Texas owned by of a few established families. Unlike in Europe, there wasn’t much ownership of private farms for a garden and a few dairy animals. The practice of making small lots of cheese and the taste for it never translated to Argentina.

Today, Buenos Aires appears to be a city transplanted from the Mediterranean, with European-looking inhabitants enjoying life in French-style cafes. In restaurants you can enjoy great local Italian-inspired salumi but you won’t find hand-crafted cheeses.

“Each sheep requires 4 hectares land to survive”
Rainfall is minimal in most of Argentina.  The narrow ribbon of agricultural land around Mendoza utilizes irrigation canals built by the Incas to bring Andean water to these dry plains. In the more tropical north large holdings of wheat and soy bean utilize rivers swollen with rain forest water from Uruguay and Brazil. But the vast part of Argentina, the world’s eighth largest country, is parched rangelands unsuitable for much except beef cattle.

The immense Patagonian Steppes in the south is the driest area of Argentina. It lies in the rain shadow of the Andes. Moisture laden air from the Pacific dumps vast amounts of snow on the Chilean side, forming the great Andean ice pack. Patagonia shows off fabulous glaciers to visitors who traveled a thousand miles over aridness to view them.  But just 20 kilometers away the parched land can support only one sheep per every four hectares. Large estancias (ranches) have survived here for wool and meat, but never for milk.

Even if verdant pasture land was available in Argentina to sustain small time dairies they would be too far flung to get their product to market. Highways are few once you get away from the commercial center of Buenos Aires. Distribution is a problem for all goods.

“Only Beef and Wheat get the Attention of our Government”
By the end of WW2, it was the sixth wealthiest country in the world. Buenos Aires was known as the “Paris of South America” with elegant hotels and shops. The wealth was based on the export of wheat and beef. No effort was made to broaden this and build a sustainable market for other products.

The political swings of twentieth century Argentina were wide and violent. The nation’s wealth evaporated. In the minds of modern Argentines, corruption and short-sightedness dissolved Argentina’s trade advantages and continue to stymie local producers. Even today, as the global market for soy beans free falls, the current president recently raised the tax on Argentine growers to 35%. The country is in an up-roar….Again.

Since the dramatic financial crash of December 2001, Argentina’s dairy business has registered more mergers and acquisitions than any other industry in the country. Some of the world’s largest dairy firms, mostly European, have taken control in Argentina, forcing out smaller dairies. These companies produce characterless industrial cheeses for global distribution. 

“We don’t have the taste for fine cheese here.”
Argentina consumes vast amounts of the cheese it produces in sandwiches, stuffed in breads and empanadas and melted on pizzas and pastas. But it is startlingly industrial and characterless. When we asked a friend about the lack of hand-made cheese in this dairy rich country he simply said “we don’t have the taste for fine cheese here.”

Hope in Mendoza
Mendoza is a small, welcoming city. Cafes in pedestrian zones are busy from 7am to 2am. Adventure tour companies entice visitors to go white water rafting in the mountains just an hour away. In this arid land, parks are shaded with thousands of trees and stone lined canals of running water cool the air along downtown streets. It’s a place visitors enjoy.

Mendoza is the capital of the top wine producing region in Argentina. Until very recently, Argentina made simple wines, 90% of which were consumed within the country. In the last ten years foreign winemakers, many from France, Italy and America, have planted vineyards to harness the dual potential of virgin land and consistently sunny climate. They have brought new viticultural techniques and influenced the quality of wine tremendously.

Wine-tourism is a rapidly growing industry in Mendoza and with sophisticated visitors comes the demand and ability to pay for fine food. It is here that we can expect hand-made cheese to find an audience both close by and willing to pay for it.

At a high profile tasting of the best wines of the country we were offered a cheese plate. Several uninspired bulk cheeses, the one good blue cheese we had been finding all over the country and a bland industrially made brie-style were offered. But there, also, was a delicate fresh cheese, one that indicates someone locally is making small batch cheese.

I don’t think we will see fine cheeses from Argentina imported into the U.S. soon. But with each passing year I would expect tourism to support more local cheese makers in the wine country. Argentines just might develop the taste for fine cheese after all.
Originally published in Farmstead Cheese News by Karen Bolla, edited for A Cook’s California (A Cook’s CA)  by Karen Bolla.



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