Food and spirit pairings have become quite popular over the last decade. Spirits have been incorporated into a range of sauces and foods as well as paired with a large range of different foods. Recently, I sat down with Grisel Vargas (GV), an expert on food and Tequila pairings, and Sofia Navarro (SN), a cheese expert from one of Mexico’s best known cheese producers, to talk about the rarely explored world of Tequila and cheese pairings.
We don’t typically think of Mexico as a cheese-producing country, but it is one of the ten largest producers of cheese in the world. In 2020, Mexico produced over 454,000 metric tons of cheese. By comparison, the US, the world’s largest cheese manufacturer produced over 5.58 million metric tons. Germany was a surprising second at 2.74 million metric tons and France was third at 1.88 million metric tons. Most of Mexico’s cheese production is soft cheeses.
JM: Was there a pre-Hispanic cheese-making tradition in Mexico or did it start with the arrival of the Spanish? There is some evidence that the Incas made a cheese-like substance from the milk of llamas, was there anything comparable in the Mexican highlands?
SN: Not to our knowledge. The tradition of dairy products wasn’t documented until the Spanish came to Mexico. They brought dairy animals to the Americas as well as domesticated animals like horses, cattle, goats and sheep among others. They also brought us the techniques to make cheese.
JM: Cheese-making in Mexico seems to be centered in Jalisco. What is it about Jalisco and in particular the highlands that lends itself to dairying/cheese making?
SN: What is called the Comaraca Lagunera (Durango, Coahuila and Jalisco) is the zone with the biggest production of milk. Of these three states, Jalisco is the one with the largest production; these were the first states in having a dairy industry. We think it might have been influenced by the climate, and the position of Jalisco in the center of the country. The fact that Spanish and French immigrants lived in the area might have helped to develop the cheese industry. Nowadays we can find a big variety of cheeses, which are classified by their type of milk, texture, region and maturation time.
JM: The aroma and flavor profile of Tequila varies significantly depending on the spirit’s age and also the origin of the piñas. What is the basis of pairing cheese and Tequila? Are you looking to create a contrast between the different flavors, bring out more subtle ones or enhance the flavor profile of the Tequila, the cheese or both?
GV: Cheese and Tequila are both parts of Mexican gastronomy. We use cheese as an entrance, as part of elaborated dishes and even as a main dish. On the other hand, Tequila is drunk as an aperitive, alone as is wine, for example, during dinner or in cocktails and as an after-dinner digestive, so the pairing with cheese is natural for us. We can be drinking Tequila and eating “Antojitos Mexicanos.” But when looking for a perfect pairing we usually try to enhance both flavors.
JM: What Mexican cheeses would you pair with each of the different styles of Tequila Blanco, Reposado, Anejo and Extra Anejo?
GV: Tequila Blanco typically receives less than 2 months of aging. Its color is transparent and bright. On the nose, we find citrus, cooked agave, herbal tones and slightly spicy notes. On the palate, at first, you can see the presence of alcohol and lime, hints of grapefruit and a slightly sweet finish without losing its fresh presence.
I would pair a Blanco with Navarro Cheese Panela. The cheese has low acidity and the right amount of salt to be able to perceive the lactic notes of the cheese without losing the sensation of freshness.
When we tried it, it was clear to us it was an ideal pairing. In 2017 the cheese won a Super Gold medal at the World Cheese Awards, held in London. This combination is ideal for an aperitif and snack before lunch. It highlights the freshness of both and does not saturate the mouth with intense flavors.
A second option for Tequila Blanco is Cotija Añejo. This is a dry cheese that possesses a particularly intense flavor. It pairs beautifully with the citric notes in a Tequila Blanco. Cut it into small squares and place it in the mouth. When you eat it, the pronounced acid notes explode in the mouth and combine perfectly with the Tequila Blanco and its citrus flavors.
This is the only Navarro branded cheese that is made with raw milk. It is aged for 12 months in open rooms, and it is subject to mechanical pressure to force out moisture and humidity from the cheese. This process generates the slightly smoky flavors, a touch of wood and floral notes that the cheese is known for. We could think that this combination would generate strong contrasts, however, in reality, the pairing provides us with a balance of Tequila, reducing the alcoholic sensation and masking what some perceive as bitter or excessive salt in Cotija.
JM: What cheeses would you pair with a Reposado?
GV: Tequila Reposado has a straw yellow color, a medium body that can be seen in its legs or tears and golden flashes that tell us about its time in the barrel. To be considered rested, a period between 2 and 12 months must be spent in maturation. In the mouth, we perceive cooked agave, sweet honey, light red fruits, butter and wood, as well as a very pleasant viscous, mouth-coating palate weight.
Gouda Navarro has a soft, elastic texture and a smooth, chewy character in the mouth. Its aroma is of cooked milk, dulce de leche and mature cheese with long aging. When combined with a Reposado, the wood notes of both are perceived both on the palate and in the finish. The light wood notes of the Tequila combine with the flavor elements of the cheese, increasing its creaminess and filling the mouth with these flavors. In this Tequila pairing, the cheese and the reposado are in total harmony.
Another option is Adobera, a type of Mexican cheese from the west of the country. This is a soft cheese that matches very well with a Reposado Tequilas in dishes or as a snack. Our suggestion for pairing with Tequila Reposado is to combine it with corn tortilla quesadillas and a smoky sauce. Both Reposado Tequila and Adobera cheese are products that combine perfectly with homemade and traditional Mexican food.
JM: What would you match with an Añejo or Extra Añejo Tequila?
GV: Añejo Tequila is old gold in color with slightly coppery flashes. It is a product that spent between 12- and 36-months aging, so on the nose we perceive woody, walnut and vanilla notes that carry over to the palate when tasting it. Initially, the Tequila is sweet, with hints of ripe tropical fruits and a slightly bitter finish. Extra Añejo is a Tequila that has aged for more than three years.
Extra Aged Mexican Cheddar is a cheese that pairs well with an Añejo or Extra Añejo Tequila. It offers up intense hints of butter and heavy cream without the acidity. There are additional notes of nuts, especially peanuts, with a finish of wild honey and sweet grilled pineapple. The combination of these two elements fills our mouths with intense flavors and aromas while providing a long finish that harmonizes the Tequila and the cheese without losing their personality. This pairing makes an excellent, if somewhat unconventional dessert.
Another pairing option is Manchego Navarro Cheese. It has bittersweet flavors, with a balance of fruit and butter, leaving a velvet sensation in the mouth and a balanced finish of lactic and salty notes.
When combined with an aged Tequila, the wood notes in the Tequila stands out as do the creamy, buttery, mouth-coating qualities of the cheese as well as the fruity notes found in both the Añejo and Extra Añejo Tequila and the cheese.
Surprisingly, Tequila is an ideal pairing for cheese, especially Mexican cheese from Jalisco, the heart of Tequila country.
JM: Thank You