Puerto Rico certainly isn't the first country that comes to mind when one thinks of great Latin American cheese producers. In fact, it doesn't come to mind at all. Here in the States, you're probably more likely to win the lottery or be struck by lightning than to find a cheese stamped “Hecho en Puerto Rico” in your local grocery store. Until recently, the odds haven't been much better on the island itself: imported, wax-encased wheels of gouda, wedges of manchego, and blocks of cheddar are widely available, but queso del país is harder to find unless you happen to come upon a roadside stand selling family-made queso fresco in the towns of Lares, San Sebastian, or Hatillo.
Wanda Otero is hoping that won't be the case for much longer, however. If Otero has her way–and a lot of people are supporting her because they believe she will–domestic cheeses will be both as popular and easy to find in Puerto Rico as imports within a few years. And maybe, just maybe, they'll even be available in your local mainland grocery store, too.
Otero, a microbiologist by training, founded Quesos Vaca Negra in Hatillo, Puerto Rico in 2010. While she was doing just fine in her career as a specialist in milk analysis and quality control, Otero believed she could apply her training in a different, and more delicious, way. “I love raw milk, aged cheeses,” she says, “and Puerto Rico just doesn't have them.” The cheeses produced on the island–most by small family businesses–are fresh, semisoft, non-aged varieties that tend to have a relatively static flavor profile. Otero saw an opportunity: seize on the growing popularity of locally-sourced foods, and those free of growth hormones and other harmful additives, to produce aged, raw milk cheeses practically in her own backyard.
Though the start-up phase of Quesos Vaca Negra was not without its challenges, some of which Otero still grapples with today, the microbiologist-turned-cheesemaker's timing was just right in many ways. The Puerto Rican palate was beginning to diversify, with more Boricuas willing to experiment with novel tastes. At the same time, the number of upscale restaurants on the island was expanding exponentially, as were the growing number of international visitors considering Puerto Rico a food destination, thanks to increasingly popular food festivals, such as Saborea and SoFo. Key eateries, among them Peter Schintler's Marmalade in San Juan and the restaurants of several high-end hotels, including Dorado Beach, a Ritz-Carlton Reserve, and St. Regis Bahia Beach Resort, began featuring Quesos Vaca Negra on their menus, and major supermarket chains on the island began selling Quesos Vaca Negra as well.
Next, how Otero is planning to expand her business...