Cotija

Ark of taste
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Cotija is a raw cow milk cheese produced during the rainy season in the Sierra Jalmich region in the states of Jalisco and Michoacán. The cows from which the milk derives are grazed in new pastures, from the months of July to October. The cheese is then aged for at least two months in the town of Cotija.

Cotija cheese has been produced in the Sierra Jalmich region for approximately 400 years, by nomadic communities that tended to small plots of land for the cultivation of corn and moved across the region. Producers benefited from a mild climate with seasonal rains, contributing to the specific flavor of the cheese.
The historical production area is the Sierra Jalmich region in the municipalities of Santa María del Oro, Jalisco, south of Tocumbo, and Cotija in Michoacán, in the north of Jilotlán de los Dolores, to the east of Tamazula, and south of Valle de Juárez and Quitupan, Jalisco; or in the southeast of Los Reyes, Peribán and Tancítaro, and north of Buena Vista Tomatlán, Michoacán.

Cheese making was brought to the region during Spanish colonialism, in the XVI century, together with cattle, sheep, and goat breeding. In the following centuries the production was maintained by small producers, based on family networks. Most milk production is still done manually by ranchers on a daily basis. Producers breed mostly holstein cows, although they all are a mixed breed between zebu and brown swiss cows.

The production process starts with the manual milking of the cows, after which the milk is pooled and skimmed. Milk is coagulated using animal rennet and once the gel has set, the curd and whey is separated. The curd is mixed with rock salt from the Colima coast and molded into big rounds of approximately 20 kilos. The molds are covered with maguey fibers (Ixtle bands) to hold the curd. They are pressed for about 24 hours and then bounded. During the first 15 days after production, each cheese mold is cleaned and turned. Once each cheese has developed a rind, they are sent to the maturation rooms to be aged for at least two months before they can be labeled as “Cotija de la Region de Origen”. The seasoning process may last up to one year.

Cotija is tangy and salty, with notes of sour butter and, depending on the season of production, notes of pineapple. As it matures, the flavor becomes less creamy and turns sharper. The smell is of wet rock and hay. Because the cheese is salted with rock salt, the flavor of salt grows sharper as the cheese ages.

In 2003, a group of academics and producers got together to promote the creation of a Denomination of Origin to protect the production of traditional artisanal Queso Cotija. However, the Mexican Intellectual Property Institute denied the application and instead granted a collective trademark in 2005. The collective trademark granted the name “Queso Cotija de la Region de Origen” as a protected designation. The Mesón del Cotija is responsible for the certification of some producers, who have been registered under a collective trademark.
Unfortunately a number of producers outside the traditional region have started producing the cheese. Consequently there is a lot of unfair competition and many substandard cheeses are now also named Cotija or Cotija-type cheese, while artisanal Cotija production in the historical area is starting to disappear. In addition, there is a lack of young people learning how to make or age this cheese. 


The production of Cotija cheese varies annually, depending on the number of producers. Since the early 2000s the production has diminished due to lack of demand, increased pressure on producers to clear lands and migration of families outside the production area.

Every year, there used to be a festival to celebrate this cheese: the town of Cotija turned into a big market place where cheese makers sold their products in the main square. This celebration has been disappearing with time, as the state of Michoacán has become dangerous due to the presence of drug cartels.

Cotija cheese is commercialized primarily by producers and by cheese maturers or affineurs. Different distributors bring this product to the market under a variety of arrangements with producers.

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Territory

StateMexico
Region

Jalisco

Michoacán de Ocampo

Production area:Sierra Jalmich region

Other info

Categories

Milk and milk products

Nominated by:Carlos Yescas - Instituto Mexicano del Queso, A.C.