Traveling through the countryside in Colombia, you see countless stands selling popular Colombian culinary treats. Signs advertise arepas (small round thick tortillas made from corn), chorizo, fruit juices, ice cream, and also ‘queso campesino’ and ‘queso doble crema’. These translate to ‘country cheese’ and ‘double cream cheese’-not particularly descriptive. It gets even less descriptive when you realize that hundreds of farm stands across the country sell cheeses that go by these names.
Are they all the same? Yes, and no. Think of it as multiple different producers of cheddar in the U.S.; one might taste bland while the other is sharp, but they both sell under the name ‘cheddar’. With very few specialty cheese stores in Colombia, however, it’s not so easy to taste your way through all of the queso campesinos (especially when you pass about 25 queso stands in 30 kilometers, as I did yesterday).
In general though, queso campesino is a dry, pressed, feta-like cheese, very salty and generally very mild and unaged. I have come across a few that were more aged and had a stronger flavor, but generally the main taste is salt. Queso campesino often comes with when you order an arepa de chocolo, or sweet corn arepa, pictured above (think corn bread pancake). Queso campesino is also served along with hot beverages like coffee, chocolate, or aguapanela (‘sugarcane water’-yup, exactly what it sounds like). Queso doble crema, on the other hand, is a harder, block cheese, visually more like a cheddar (although notably absent of the orange dye that is added to most American cheddars). It isn’t quite so widespread and usually isn’t served along with meals or breakfasts, but you can find it at many roadside stands.
These ‘country cheeses’ essentialize the original purpose of cheese. In its most basic form, cheese is meant to be a way to preserve milk for later consumption or transport. The generalized naming of all of these traditionally made country cheeses reminds us of this characteristic of fromage. Instead of giving every cheese a specific name and selling it in a luxury market, these cheeses are mostly meant to appeal to the general public who have grown up eating queso campesino. This is similar to the way that many goat cheeses are sold in France; they are simply called ‘fromage de chevre’ and sold at low prices for people to eat on a daily basis. And although I love luxury cheeses, I also love this return to the basics of cheesemaking. Families are making a little bit of cheese from the milk their few animals produce, selling it fresh and in small batches, and not adding any frills; just selling their ‘country cheese’.