A raw milk cheese historically produced in Mexico, Queso Asadero de la Zona Fronteriza relies on unique techniques to produce a delicious, remarkably stretchy curd cheese eaten commonly in historical Mexican dishes such as chile con queso, choriqueso, caldo con queso, queso fundido, as well as the classic quesadilla. Queso Asadero is made with either vegetable rennet, called trompillo, or animal rennet traditionally from the criollo corriente landrace of cattle. Rennet is a complex variety of enzymes found in the stomachs of certain animals, and is used in cheese production to curdle milk. Trompillo in particular is the small yellow berry of the silverleaf nightshade, and is native to the Sonoran Desert. These berries provide Queso Asadero with a unique smooth flavor. This customary method of cheese making produces a distinctive creamy white soft cheese that can be used for melting, grilling, roasting, or baking.
Early Jesuit accounts tell us that cattle were first brought to Northern Mexico between 1540 and 1765. These cattle roamed free and were hunted for meat. By 1892, trompillo was being used to curdle milk throughout the region. Production of Queso Asadero spread from the Sonoran Desert to the Southwest United States, and by the 1930s the Martinez-Licon family started to produce the cheese commercially while maintaining traditional methods of production. Since then, sales of Queso Asadero have spread from the borderlands of the Sonoran Desert into Western Mexico and as far north as Phoenix, Arizona.
The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has never approved the use of trompillo in cheese production, nor does it endorse the production of raw milk cheese due to health risks when made in large quantities. As “cremerias” increase their scale of production to complete with imported cheeses sold by supermarkets, they are pressured to step back from traditional cheese making methods and consider the economic benefits and pressures placed upon them by the FDA to use bio-tech rennets instead of trompillo. As more and more cheese makers push for their product to be approved by the FDA, the art of making classic Queso Asadero is being lost. In addition to these burdens, the region that produces the majority of Queso Asadero has been undergoing five years of drought that has killed millions of cattle. Further climate change will undoubtedly place more pressure on land use and the cost of feeding milk cows for cheese production.
It is vital that traditional methods of cheese production not be lost to the growing need to have a seal of approval by the FDA. Queso Asadero de la Zona Fronteriza is a prime example of a cheese that has a special taste far superior to that of commercially produced cheese. By purchasing and spreading the word about Queso Asadero, consumers can support small producers and celebrate the rich history and culture of southwestern North America.