Making merry in May: Mexico's National Cheese and Wine Festival
To the north and west of Mexico City lies the region known as El Bajío, often called "Mexico's breadbasket." This rugged, high plateau bears a distinct resemblance to central Spain, home of its original settlers. Religious and hard working, they preserved many of the Spanish cultural and culinary traditions, and this part of Mexico is often referred to as being "the most European."
Perhaps because of this strong European background, the people of the region have long excelled in the production of cheese, beginning in the 16th century, when the Spaniards introduced milk-producing animals. Dairy products were not consumed in pre-Hispanic Mexico, but the settlers of the Bajío were particularly successful in establishing a dairy industry that would make cheese an important a part of the Mexican diet.
So it is not surprising that a colonial Bajío town -- Tequisquiapan, Querétaro -- would be the site of Mexico's national cheese and wine festival. This year, the town will host the 27th annual Feria Nacional del Queso y de Vino, an event that draws local, national and international participants eager to showcase their products and provide samples to fairgoers.
Beginning in late May, and lasting into the first week in June, Parque La Pila, in the center of town, is transformed into a venue for tasting some of the best that Mexican gastronomy has to offer. Besides the cheese and wine producers, twenty local restaurants participate in the festival, where offerings include paella, grilled beef, salads, crepes and dishes made with the nopal cactus found in abundance throughout the region.
The festival offers not only typical Mexican cheeses, such as ranchero, panela and manchego, but locally produced versions of French and Middle Eastern cheeses. The French reblochon, with its soft texture and beige color, is a rich cheese made from the second milking of the day, when the cow's milk has a higher fat content. Sante Maure, also French in origin, is an aged goat's milk cheese, or chevre, with a nutty flavor and aroma and a thin, smooth, blue-gray molding.
The festival also features locally produced Syrian and Lebanese cheeses. Jocoque, which is translated as buttermilk, is actually much thicker, has the texture of sour cream or Greek yogurt, and is used as a spread for botanas, or snacks. Also Middle Eastern in origin is shanklish (sometimes spelled shanclish) made with either cow's or sheep's milk, formed into balls about 2 ½ inches in diameter and covered with zatar seasoning made with crushed sesame seeds, thyme and sumac berries.
None of the French or Middle Eastern cheeses have yet upstaged the Mexican cheeses, which continue to be the most popular and widely available for tasting. The fresh white cheeses, such as queso fresco flavored with either jalapeño, chipotle, arbol chiles or epazote, are outstanding. A fragrant queso ahumado has the buttery consistency of Chihuahua-style queso menonita, with a flavor and aroma reminiscent of smoked provolone.
Another specialty introduced by the Spaniards and featured at the festival is wine. The local wine has come a long way since colonial times, when grapes were planted to make the wine considered necessary for the Catholic Mass. Nowadays, St. Emilion, chenin, macabeau, gamay, sauvignon blanc, pinot noir, pinot gris and cabernet are among the vines planted.
The festival offers opportunities to taste local sparkling wines made using the champagne method, as well as Querétaro's chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, merlot, pinot noir and cabernet. There are also wines from other regions of Mexico and from Spain, Italy, France, Australia, Chile, Argentina, South Africa and Uruguay.
When it comes to food, visitors to the festival will have a hard time deciding between the regional specialties. Traditional foods include carnitas, chicken with fruit and nut sauces, tamales, jocoque enchiladas, and mamanxa -- corn gorditas with local cheese incorporated into the dough, baked in a banana leaf on a comal.
The region is also famous for its sweet potatoes, either made into the candy called camotes, or incorporated into soups and stews. Both sopa queretana, with purple sweet potatoes, chicken breast and egg yolks, and garbanzos en amarillo, with chickpeas, orange sweet potatoes and saffron, are evocative of the hearty peasant dishes of central Spain. The latter is a traditional food for the Día de La Santa Cruz, celebrated throughout Mexico, and with particular fervor in Queretaro, on May 3.
Still hungry? Don't forget the sweets, many of them made with the cactus fruits, biznaga and xoconoxtle, abundant in the Bajío, as are the nopal paddles incorporated into a wide variety of dishes from soup to tacos. And as if the traditional food weren't enough, local restaurants offer such gourmet dishes as rack of lamb in mint and rosemary sauce, chicken in cilantro cream, beef filet in marrow sauce, and shrimp and nopal tacos.
Besides the cheese, wine and food, visitors to the festival will undoubtedly appreciate the well-planned musical program, which includes jazz, flamenco and trova, among others. There is also a children's area, with games and handcraft activities, and a vendors' area with local textiles and embroidery.
Tequisquiapan is also famous for its thermal spas. (See Tony Burton's "Tequisquiapan, Querétaro, a delightful spa town") and very close by are other places of interest. The La Redonda and Freixenet wineries both give tours and tastings. The nearby town of Bernal, named a Pueblo Mágico by the Mexican government, is a 16th century colonial village with artesania, restaurants, and a view of the Peña de Bernal monolith, third largest in the world. Opals from local mines are also sold in Bernal. (For more about Bernal, see "The Magic of Bernal, Querétaro: Wine, Opals and Historic Charm" by Jane Ammeson.)
Information on the festival, including maps, driving directions, winery and opal mine tours, can be found at the website or by calling the town's tourism office at (01) (414) 273-0295 or 273-0841. This year's festival will be held from May 29-June 7. If you can't get there, try some of these local recipes.