Cheese: Meet The Queso Banditos of Rose Park, Utah

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As you enter the Rose Park area of Salt Lake City, Utah, a majestic stone sign invites you into streets lined with mature conifers, oaks, aspen and maple trees. The houses that skirt these walkways are mostly one-story, made of brick and built in the 1940s and 50s. Each has a snaking path up to the front door and its own piece of land at the back. Yet behind its peaceful exterior, Rose Park is awash with contradictions.

The high crime rates bandied about by the wider press are belied by low crime figures driven by community organised mobile neighbourhood watch patrols and response teams. Residents’ talk of “friendly neighbours” sit slightly at odds with unemployment figures of almost double the National Average. Yet the chief of these contradictions appears to centre on the last thing anyone would expect: cheese.

Rose Park is a community divided into long-term Caucasians and a more recent influx of Hispanics. For the most part these groups co-exist in harmony, except on one thing: their attitude to cheese. Since 1949, the US government has forbidden the sale of cheeses made from “unsafe” unpasteurised milk unless the produce is aged at least 60 days. Most Americans are familiar with this arrangement however, it renders a raft of traditional Latin American and European cheeses instantly illegal in their unmodified form. The Mexicans are not impressed.

Weapons are Easier to Purchase in the US Than Raw Milk Cheese

Over the Summer last year a picture began to do the rounds on the internet, which bore the US flag and depicted guns on the left, captioned “legal” and French cheese on the right, captioned “Illegal”. In response to this, John Aravosis, Editor of ‘The America Blog‘ wrote an article titled “Is it easier in America to buy a gun than French cheese?” He concluded this is indeed the case, adding: “Two people died over fifteen years from eating raw milk cheese. Significantly more died over that period from guns, about 450,000 people…”

Back in Rose Park, with its low crime rates, and wealth of contradictions, the cheese divide bubbles underneath the surface. In the bright sunshine,  the tree-lined road is picturesque, but through one clean hinged gate and neatly scrubbed front path the sound of KRS-One blares loudly into the neighbourhood. Ana Fernades opens the door in slim fitted jeans and a black tee-shirt, her hair tied in a knot at the nape of her neck. Over her shoulder she yells to her nearly-teenage sons playing computer games in the front room to turn the music down.

Tall, with long dark brown hair and small, pretty features Ana Fernandes may not look like a bandit, or a freedom fighter yet she fits the demographic perfectly. At 32 she lives with her mother, grandmother and three young sons in a single story house in Rose Park. And her kitchen forms the hub of an illegal  cheese production business run by three-generations of Mexican women.

This family is precisely the group credited by Tim Sullivan in the Salt Lake Tribune, in 2003 for the rise of “New Urbanism”. These are the people who are bringing back “walkable, vibrant neighbourhoods” alive with a bustling community spirit. However, they also make up the notorious population of cheese criminals that dog the streets of Salt Lake City selling their contraband to the delight of their Mexican patrons and horror of US authorities.

Yet as Fernandes herself explains passionately in her heavy Spanish accent, “Queso fresco is a key part of Mexican cooking. The cheese is not good if it is made with pasteurised milk. Mexicans demand real cheese.” Upon this point she is adamant that Mexicans will not compromise. Raw milk cheese sits at the epicentre of their culture and to call it illegal is something very serious indeed. People are up in arms.

The ingredients to create  queso fresco (translated as fresh cheese) are simple: raw milk, salt and lemon juice. The process is equally straight-forward: the mixture is heated until the ingredients curdle and the solid matter that rises to the surface is skimmed off, strained in a cheesecloth then sold on the black market to restaurants, market stalls and individuals in homes. The cheese is salty, with a mild, tangy taste similar to Feta and is used in most forms Mexican cooking. A perfectly legal alternative made from pasteurised milk is available in  supermarkets, but is universally derided as bland.

“Bathtub Cheese” Gives Mexicans a Bad Name

According to the authorities, any cheese made using raw (unpasteurised) milk is a health hazard. However Mexican “bathtub cheese” (named for its unsanitary production processes) has gained an especially poor reputation as it has  been credited with the rampant spread of tuberculosis and salmonella. Recent high profile cases have included the 2011 prosecution of Fidel Gomez, also known as “Mr Cheese” by The Utah Department of Agriculture and Food, whose homemade soft cheese was blamed for over 2,000 cases of salmonella in six counties.  Whilst this January, US Customs and Border Protection agents patrolling the Santa Teresa, N.M. port of entry seized 230 pounds of illegal cheese stored in a pick-up truck.

In Rose Park illegal cheese production is notorious and denounced vociferously by the Caucasian community. This in turn drives the traditional manufacturing process deeper underground and allows cheese makers far less scrupulous than Fernandes and her family to sell substandard products to Mexicans who crave the taste of home. Don Cluff, a Rose Parks resident in his fifties said, “The Mexicans round here are making dangerous, germ infested cheeses. It is worse than drugs. Innocent people get caught up in it. This stuff gets sold to restaurants and anyone can get sick.”

Not all of the local residents share in this view, Helen, a 35-year-old history teacher sees no harm in the tradition, “It’s a vital part of life round here,” she begins, “I’ve been eating the local queso fresco for years. It’s perfectly safe… and delicious. Besides, having to buy it on the black market just adds to the charm.”

Fernandes, and others like her, believe they are performing an invaluable service for the community “My family have been making and eating queso fresco for hundreds of years. Why is it now illegal?” Here Fernades makes a pressing point – in France she would be commended an artisan, in Utah she is denigrated as a “queso  bandito” or “cheese bandit”.

The EU Cheese Clampdown

Across much of Europe: Italy, Denmark, Ireland and Slovenia – to name but a few countries – raw cheese production is perfectly legal, although the EU has been clamping down since the 1990s. In France – probably the world’s most famous cheese capital – raw milk and raw milk cheeses are considered the standard for high quality dairy products. This video for example, shows one American woman’s amazement at a French raw milk vending machine, whilst many French cuisine traditionalists consider pasteurised cheeses to be almost sacrilegious.

Yet even Europeans sometimes have a hard job making sense of cheese production. Take Casu Marzu for example, this Sardinian cheese contains live insect larvae and the 8mm translucent white worms form an integral part of the final cheese. Initially outlawed by the EU, this was recently made legal again under a separate EU directive which sanctions “traditional” food.

News such as the recent European horse meat scandal however, prove that many recognised food suppliers are consistently contravening regulations. Surely this provides context for people crafting traditional products in their own homes? Yet the question of raw milk has proved incredibly intense across America. Last year Chris Kresser presented a comprehensive analysis of the statistics offered by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and reached the conclusion that the findings were predominantly spin. However, in part he blamed the misleading figures on illegal raw cheese production, which pushed up the negative impact of raw milk.

Across the globe cheese has proved a culturally divisive subject since time immemorial. Each country has traditions and cheeses unshared by other nations. A 2004 article from CNN for example looked at the world’s only moose farm in Sweden, where cheese is made from the milk of three moose cows: Gullen, Helgae, and Juna. Whilst in 2012 Serbian donkey cheese caused quite a stir when Tennis supremo Novak Djokovic was reported to have bought the entire global supply. But these oddities aside, where would Italian cuisine be without Parmesan or Mozzarala? Or the American cheese burger without its processed slice? Not to mention Middle Eastern dishes without Feta, countless English favourites without cheddar… and who knows where to start even on the French? Surely cheese is the ultimate cultural statement and most universal cultural divider?

In Rose Park, Salt Lake City, Utah this ongoing struggle is played out in households across the neighbourhood. These are ordinary Mexicans fighting to keep their local customs alive. And by continuing to produce and sell traditional cheeses, people like Fernandes and family are making a stand for cheeses that have been produced in the same fashion for generations. These are the unlikely cheese outlaws, the cheese freedom fighters; the notorious cheese criminals loved by their own and hated by the US authorities.

*Names have been changed to protect anonymity.

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