As the first rays of light hit the mountains, a century-old tradition takes form, a colonial memory that lives on. ‘Happy’ cows, treated with the respect of a world pre-large-scale agriculture, are milked by the community, a crucial resource for one of the finest cheese factories in Ecuador.
Since the 16th century, two centuries before Hacienda Zuleta was acquired by its first predecessor, cheese-making was already practiced within the community. Agriculture and livestock here allowed cheese to become a major source of income, but it was not until the days of former president Galo Plaza Lasso – and his meeting with the passionate Swiss cheesemaker Oskar Purtschert – that the cheeses from Zuleta turned into a national benchmark of belonging, tradition and quality.
In 1951, Purtschert was passing through Ecuador, on his way to Argentina. As a good European cheese lover, he liked strong flavors. Hard cheeses were his favorite, but he couldn’t find that Swiss flavor in all of Latin America.
As he searched for it, he met Galo Plaza Lasso, who offered him the opportunity of producing good European cheese at the Zuleta hacienda. Purtschert continued on to Argentina, but promised to return.
Two years later, Purtschert kept his word and arrived in Ecuador, ready to put the Zuleta cheese wheel into motion. Agriculture had grown in those days, as well as the desire to develop a full-fledged cheese factory and promote a new source of income for the local community. Galo Plaza Lasso was excited to found what has become, today, the most important cheese-products in northern Ecuador.
In the back quarters of the hacienda, you’ll find “La Casa del Queso” (“the cheese house”), a pretty space that highlights the hacienda’s cheese ‘story’, the awards, the history… and samples of the many varieties. It is also where the milk curdling process takes place. And you can see it with your own eyes.
Before explaining, we should mention that up to 8,000 liters of milk are processed here per day. Most is produced during the three milking sessions at the hacienda —for those who stay at Zuleta, it can be yet another special experience here— and it is great contribution to the community, which performs the milking ritual every dawn.
Most important is feeding and caring for the cows. The food, the treatment… it’s a far cry from the ways of industrialized agriculture. The majority of the farm’s cattle are Holstein, which produce a fattier milk, better for cheese production.
The art of cheese making
The process to transform milk into cheese depends on two basic principles: change in acidity and change in temperature. Different fermentation processes result in different types of cheese.
The curd obtained at the plant in La Casa del Queso is taken to the molds. These are then pressed in order to remove excess water and give each cheese its characteristic “wheel” shape.
Then, they are salted and placed in a maceration room, where cheeses can remain for up to several months — even years, depending on the flavor one desires.
Last but not least comes the waxing.
Each flavor has its own color. Once macerated, the cheeses are manually introduced into boiling wax that will allow the flavor to be preserved intact until it reaches your home.
Cheese for every occasion
Currently, Hacienda Zuleta cheeses come in nineteen varieties, from fresh traditional cheese such as La Zuleteña , through a line of semi-mature cheeses such as Pategras , Angochagua and Dambo, and the very special cheese created in honor of the man who gave life to this endeavor: Don Galo, winner of international awards including the Mercolactea of Argentina (2010).
Comuna Zuleta, Imbabura – Ecuador
(+593) 6 2662 182
Fotografías por: Paula Holguín.