Cooking with Calley P: a cheesy tour of Nicaragua

Nicaragua produces a wide variety of tasty, farm-fresh cheese (photo/ Calley P)

Nicaragua produces a wide variety of tasty, farm-fresh cheese (photo/ Calley P)

About three years ago I made a trek from Granada to the outskirts of Managua for a great farmstead cheese. I actually blogged about it on my personal blog, fresh-eyes and ready for adventure.

In order to get organic Nicaraguan products, sometimes it requires a bit of legwork. And “a bit” is putting it very moderately.

Selva Negra is a farm in Matagalpa, in the north of the country, that produces farmstead organic cheese. And their cheeses are delicious — gouda, ricotta, and camembert.

Contacting Selva Negra was as easy as emailing them. The tricky part was the pick-up. Since the farm is tucked up in the mountains of Matagalpa, I arranged to pick up the cheese order from the farmer’s mother’s house instead. It was a typical Nicaraguan address, meaning I needed both sides a sheet of paper to copy it down fully:

… where the Catholic Nuncio lives, it is on the left hand side, there is a wire fence from the highway all around, you enter in Callejon Felde, there are 3 houses. Our house is the first one, all the way at the end of the lot. My sister’s is the next house and my mother behind that. You can ring a bell at the side road, there will always somebody who will attend. At the side of the road is a sign of a security school that my nephew tried to open, a lot of sand bags for his training, and different things, it is a silver sign, with 3 sides.

Why would I have trouble finding the house (sarcasm)? what is Callejon Felde? or a Nuncio? Will I immediately spot the small lot with a sandbag in it? Luckily, I did find the broken sign on the side of road distinguishing which gate I was supposed to stand outside and scream and honk and flash my lights like a deranged gringa.

After a bit of that behavior, the 75 year old attendant came outside to meet me. She was decked out in an outfit that looked like it was inspired by a French maid’s uniform. With some difficulties navigating the language barrier, I managed to get inside the gate and past a pack of barking dogs. Then there was a problem with payment and receipts, but, luckily, Mateo was waiting in the car. He came into the house and spoke with the accountant on the phone to sort out the business end of the cheese transaction, while I made light talk with the mother, of German descent.

It wasn’t the easiest way to buy cheese, but it was a worthwhile adventure. And it landed me with a great cheese connection. Now I’m hooked on Selva Negra cheeses from Matagalpa. Luckily, nowadays the cheeses are sold retail in any Bavaria shop in Managua. But I do like the adventure of trekking up north for cheese, or discovering local farmsteads to buy a flavorful, melt-in-your-mouth dairy delight.

Last month I took a  two hour drive to Granada to pick up my co-pilot, and then we drove another three hours to downtown Estelí, where we stopped for La Casita cheese and a chai latte. Granted, La Casita had only one cheese available, Gouda, but that alone was well worth the trip. The yogurt-butter plus their homemade bread makes for a wonderful snack. (On a side note, I wish they would put some of their cheese profits ints fixing their bathrooms, which were in the same sorry state of disrepair they were when I first visited three years ago.)

From downtown Estelí, it was another hour drive on the dark, unpaved roads to Miraflor. The full moon lit our path just enough to make it creepy. But finally we made it!

photo 1-2

After a bit of tea (and beer) to lull us to sleep in “the bitter cold” of the Nicaraguan mountains, we awoke to a sunny morning. The Miraflor landscape looks similar to the rolling hills of Austria — everything lush, green and quaint. After a mountain horseback ride, we had a specialty lunch of fresh cuajada cheese, beans, tortilla and cabbage salad. The cabbage was locally grown, so the salad actually had flavor. By the time we left Miraflor, after one night, we had literally met everyone in town.

The next morning, it was off to La Garnacha, a gorgeous farm community only a bumpy yet beautiful drive away from Estelí. La Garnacha is a gorgeous, breezy community that I would love to get stuck in for days. After a breakfast of homemade swiss cheese and bread, our host Pablo gave us an amazing tour of the property. He showed us his vegetables, herbal medicine plantings, animals, composts, coffee, views and baseball field. I wanted to make it home before dark, so bought as much cheese as I could carry, and, as if for sport, managed to squeeze in one more cheesy meal.

On the way out of Estelí, we made one last stop at La Casita and were happy to find out they have more cheese options available. They had Swiss, Gouda, Manchego and an amazing brie. We packed up a bit of each to go, and, a long ride back to the beach.

I want to take a moment to introduce a new character in my blog. My Chocolate Lab puppy, Lali, will be hereby referred to as
“The Tank.” Mateo recently moved back to the City of Angels, so the Tank has become my new sidekick. She’s been nicknamed so because she is seemingly indestructible. Whether playing with pitbulls, eating sea urchins, chomping on razors, or an inordinate amount of food, the Tank always comes out on top, unscathed.

An example of her sheer physical exertion would be that up in Estelí, she ran alongside us during a two hour horseback ride and took a freezing cold waterfall swim before getting worn down enough to behave like a sane pup.

Tank the dog

the Tank awaiting a piece of tasty "queso Esteliano"

The Tank, it turns out, also has a nose for Nicaraguan cheese. The night after returning from Estelí, I planned to share some of my newly purchased cheeses with friends. I placed the raw goat’s milk wheel on a cutting board against the wall of the countertop, with a bowl on top. This was to bring it to room temperature, for the best flavor, and to “hide it” from her. But when I got out of the shower I noticed the familiar plastic packaging of La Garnacha on the floor. The Tank is adapting and learning like a Jurassic Park velociraptor; she’s expanding her reach, nothing is safe. Guys, she ate an entire wheel of cheese. To quote Ron Burgundy, “I’m not even mad; I’m impressed.” She didn’t get sick, and soon after ate her whole dinner. “The Tank” strikes again.

Luckily, I’d had my fill of cheese over the past few days. And now it looks like I’ve got an excuse to go back up to Estelí a bit sooner than I had planned.

For those of you who have read my Cooking with Calley P blog before in The Nicaragua Dispatch, you’ll notice there’s no actual cooking going on this time. That’s on purpose. All of these cheeses are so tasty and full of flavor, I recommend eating them plain, or with salt, fresh bread, cashews and local, floral bee honey. (I’m not sure what other animal produces honey, but the signs here always specify “miel de abeja,” perhaps so you don’t confuse it with “miel de gate”.)

For sandwiches (avid blog readers know, I love sandwiches as a vehicle for shoving food into my piehole), I like to add the La Garnacha swiss-style cheese, sliced as thinly as possible, in a fresh roasted turkey sandwich on a baguette with a light dressing.

Up next on my cheese tour of the country– Cabriolas goat cheese! It’s a must try. They have amazing chevre and I tried their brie a few weeks back. I can’t wait to get my paws on some more, and will be sure to keep it in the fridge, far from Tank’s paws.

Hopefully soon enough we’ll have milk producing animals here on the farm & will be making some cheeses ourselves!

Until next time, Buen Provecho!

About Calley Prezzano
Calley Prezzano

Calley Prezzano was classically trained in San Francisco, California. She has cooked in Michelin Star Restaurants in the San Francisco Bay Area and was the founding Executive Chef of Jicaro Ecolodge in Granada, Nicaragua. She is the founding Executive Chef of La Finca y El Mar Restaurant in Rancho Santana in Tola, Nicaragua. (lafincayelmar.com)

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