Swiss recipe a hit at local cheese factory

October 20, 2011

CANAAN – In this small town near San Gerardo de Rivas, a short drive from the Southern Zone’s crossroads city of San Isidro de El General, visitors will find one of Costa Rica’s pioneer businesses. Quesos Canaán is a small, family-run sustainable cheese company that produces types of matured cheese that are often hard to find in Costa Rica. 

Wilberth Mata and his wife Kattia Hernández have been making cheese for the past nine years. Their expertise is a result of both coincidence and hard work. No one in this rural village, which sits near the entrance to Chirripó, Costa Rica’s highest peak, expected the business to succeed. 

Mata was born in Canaán. His father, the town’s tailor, started a milk farm 35 years ago on land that he purchased in 1960 for $120. At the time, the family’s only income came from the milk they sold to a local plant. 

Eventually, Mata got married and inherited the family business, which stayed a milk farm until 10 years ago, when a visitor changed Mata’s life. A Swiss man named Martin Chatagny stopped by the farm and shared his knowledge about Swiss cheese with the family. 

“He taught us to make only the most traditional of Swiss cheeses. Most Costa Ricans would probably consider that type of cheese too old and stinky to eat,” Mata said. 

The idea of making Swiss cheese was appealing, but the risks were high. Hernández began by making small batches that she took to community meetings. “My wife would come back home with all the cheese since everyone thought it smelled and tasted horribly,” Mata said. 

The family had all the ingredients to start a new business, but in such a small town, who would buy the cheese? 

One day a group of North American expatriates tasted the cheese at one of the meetings. It was well received, and Mata and Hernández realized that foreigners would make perfect customers for their products. 

“Once a French man told us in a thick accent, ‘You Ticos are silly, you eat the bad cheese and dislike the really good ones,’” Mata said. 

In town, word of the family’s new venture spread, and soon hotel owners and expats were buying their cheese at Quesos Canaán. Local Ticos became interested too, adapting their palates to the cheese’s strong flavor. 

One thing that was not new about the businesses was its model for sustainability, a strategy the family designed 28 years ago. Back then, Mata’s father wanted to find a way to keep bugs away from the cow manure. A casual encounter helped him solve the problem. A Chinese man by the name of Horacio Ching, who happened to be passing by, knew of a solution: He taught Mata’s father how to build a waste digester to convert the manure into energy. 

“My father invested ₡25,000, which was a lot of money back then [$543 at the time]. We quickly got rid of the bugs that were invading our property,” Mata said. Today the energy Mata uses to power his business and home is generated entirely by the waste produced by his seven cows. 

Energy is not the only thing that Mata produces from the farm’s waste byproducts. The waste digester creates a residue that Mata uses as organic fertilizer to help grow higher quality grasses to feed his cows. Over time, Mata and his wife discovered that reducing the use of artificial fertilizers helped produce better milk, and therefore better cheese. 

“The process is significantly better when our milk is organic. Chemicals do not produce a better maturing of the cheese [than organic methods], and the final product doesn’t reflect the quality that we strive for on this farm,” Mata said. 

But Quesos Canaán is still a very small business. They produce only about six kilograms of cheese every day, and each round of cheese is left to mature for up to five months. 

Mata milks the cows regularly and encourages tourists to stop in and tour  the farm. Visitors can help prepare cheese, sample different varieties and take some home. 

The family’s next step is maximizing production in order to supply cheese to San José retailers more frequently. 

For more about Quesos Canaán, call 2742-5125 or email quesoscanaan@hotmail.com.

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