Located near the town of Ojos Negros, about 20 miles south of the city of Ensenada in Mexico, cheese lovers will find an over 100-year-old dairy farm.
The family-owned farm is dedicated to making gourmet, artisanal and all-natural cheeses. Owned and operated by Marcelo Castro, a fourth-generation cheese maker, Rancho La Campana is also home to La Cava de Marcelo, the only cheese cellar open to the public in Latin America.
Built in 2008, the cellar sits on 60 acres of grassy land in the valley of Real de Castillo. Using only grass , alfalfa, corn, grain, and fresh water to feed the 200 or so Holstein cows, this Swiss/Italian family launched their business in 1911, and has been producing small batches of their creamy, fresh basil, rosemary, and pepper and olive oil cheese varietals prosperously ever since.
The drive to Marcelo’s through the Bodegas San Rafael Valley, is one not soon forgotten. Huge boulders loom on the hillside. Flanking the valley on lower slopes is an abundance of chaparral, with the occasional bursts of white and yellow flowers—all composing a stunning view throughout the winding journey.
Once at the farm, guests arrive to a see some very healthy and seemingly happy cows. Walking through with guide, Horacio Perez, it feels like a cheese connoisseur’s paradise.
Perez explains that the cows are milked about six at a time. They’re not pumped with any antibiotics, or fed anything other than grains and grass basically, and that the cows seen out in the distance are resting between giving birth (about eight months), until they’re back in rotation.
The cheese-making process is pretty simple, not that different today than the days when Marcelo’s father, grandfather, and great-grandfather made it. The processing rooms are small, and without adding any additives, things are kept minimal.
With birds chirping and cows mooing, visitors move into the cellar. It’s cold and dark, all designed to keep the cheese at the correct temperature. The little house-like space (built over 100 feet below ground), is filled with cheese closets aging everything naturally from four months to up to three years.
Guests are invited to sample all of the collection, and the usual plate is paired with a locally made wine, a basket of freshly baked mesquite toasted bread, and homemade fig jam.
Much of the staff at La Cava are trained or are in-training at various culinary schools in cooking or enology (the study of winemaking). The experience of tasting in the cellar seems like something out of another century. Visitors are quickly transported to some chic European food locale.
Cheese was introduced to Mexico through the Spanish conquest—Mesoamericans were not dairy eaters. Over the colonial period, cheese making was modified to suit the mixed tastes of both European and indigenous inhabitants. Traditionally, cheese in Mexico uses cow milk, but it’s almost always unpasteurized, made at home, or in small batches at small dairy farms.
Today, between 20 and 40 different types of cheeses are made in the country, with a few made in great volume such as in Chihuahua and Oaxaca. Two cheeses are protected by law, Cotija and queso de bola of Ocosingo, Chiapas.
Mexico is ranked 10th in the world for cheese production and eighth for consumption. Grouped with Argentina and Brazil, Mexico is part of a region which is third in cheese production, behind Europe and the US.
After cheese tasting, most guests enjoy lunch served (above ground) on the Ranch, and under a shady tree. The chef serves an easy menu of locally sourced grilled lamb, freshly caught tuna carpaccio, cured sardines, and a locally made craft beer.
Rebekah Sager is a nationally published lifestyle and culture writer. She's a regular contributor to Fox News Latino. Follow Rebekah on Twitter @Rebekah_Sager.