One doesn’t normally equate South America with fine, aged cheeses (basic, young cheeses are normally eaten on this side of the equator), and I must confess that surf and mountains were what drew me to Ecuador for a 5-week trip; but ever since I read an article about a 16-century hacienda - or estate - in the northern sierra that was making mature European-style cheeses, I put it on my wish list of places to check out on my travels. What attracted me to the hacienda was not only its small, careful production of cheese in an unlikely and remote place, but also its stunning location in the Andes.Hacienda Zuleta, also an exclusive and luxurious ecolodge since 1995, doesn’t normally take day visitors; but for me they generously made an exception given my work experience at Sickles. On a Monday morning I left my modest hostal in the market town of Otavalo and took a local bus to Ibarra, the provincial capital, and then a taxi along ascending, bumpy dirt roads to a magical spot tucked into the verdant, slopping mountains. With the help of my taxi driver, I found the office of the small fabrica de queso, or cheese factory, and expressed in my very basic Spanish that I had an appointment for a tour. A phone call was made, and soon Fernardo Polanco Plazo, the general manager, entered the light-filled office.
Looking distinguished in his pressed jeans and button-down shirt, Fernado is more than the general manager; he’s the grandson of Galo Plaza Lasso, the former president of Ecuador (1948-1952). The Lasso family bought the 4,000-acre working dairy farm in 1898. At that time, there was evidence of cheese production at the hacienda, but not until 1952 did the hacienda focus on aged cheeses. The catalyst was a state visit by President Galo to Argenetina when he meet the Swiss cheesemaker Don Oskar Purtschert. Lasso encouraged Purtschert, who was looking for a way to return to Ecuador, where he had spent some time, to come make European cheeses. He did, and the rest is history.
After Fernarndo dashed off for a meeting in Quito, the dairy manager took me on a tour of the immaculate cheese factory. I was very impressed with its attention to hygiene; you don’t always see strict systems in place at small factories. The tour went backwards from the aging rooms, where multiple rounds of cheese in various sizes dipped in colored wax waited to leave the dairy, to the maturing rooms where cheeses rest on wooden shelves until they are deemed ready to be dipped in wax and sold, to the production room where rich, local milk is transformed into eleven different types of cheeses, and finally to the spot just outside the dairy where some 5,400 gallons of milk are pumped into the factory. The hacienda has almost 300 dairy cows, but since the fat content of their milk is not quite right for cheesemaking, they sell the milk to Nestle and use the milk of grass-fed cows from neighboring farms. This milk produces cheeses like Danbo, which have European origins, and Pategras, which call South America home. Fernando has plans to expand his already-impressive operations and move toward organic cheeses. I think this is a great idea given the high quality of grass that the cows are eating.
After the tour, I had a half an hour or so to wander the grounds of the hacienda until lunch, a gourmet affair of pink-flesh trout from the farm and soup and salad prepared with organic vegetables from the garden. The rustic majesty of the farmhouse seduced me: a low, whitewashed building with a red-tiled roof, surrounded by a stone colonnade, decorated with blue pots of geraniums, opening onto a vast cobblestone courtyard with a large stone cross in the middle. This must have been what an ancient Roman villa in the countryside was like (minus the cross, plus some mosaics), or a well-endowed medieval monastery with a quiet cloister. In the salon, decorated with family heirlooms and photographs, I sipped fresh watermelon juice by the fire (Zuleta is only a few degrees north of the equator, but the high altitude makes for very cool temperatures) until I was called into lunch, set in a formal, family-sized dining room.
At last, it was time to try the cheeses! Two wooden boards of cheeses were set out for me, one with the semimature cheeses and the other with the special aged Don Galo, named for Fernando’s grandfather. The extra-aged Don Galo was delicious, like a sweet, hard Gouda, with the appealing texture of calcium crystals. The younger cheeses didn’t impress me as much, which is a shame because they are made with such high-quality milk. I suspect that dipping the cheeses in wax and then sealing them in plastic leads to a slightly moist and gummy cheeses. It would be so much better to allow them to form natural rinds and dry out a bit, but I also appreciate how hard it is to sell boutique cheeses like these in Ecuador, where there isn’t a thriving market for them. Dipping them in wax allows them to be shipped and marketed more easily in supermarkets. This is the compromise you need to make to get your boutique cheeses sold.
Already my day was an absolute delight, a dream come true, but the highlight was yet to come: a two-hour ride on Zuleta’s uniquely bred horses, Zuleteños, through a stunning valley to be awed by immense condors and ancient Incan mounds. Maybe one day I’ll be able to stay multiple days at the enchanting hacienda but I am more than content with my single day there and with the hospitality, food, and activities of historical Hacienda Zuleta.