Carlos Yescas has been a diplomat, professor and united nations expert. He still juggles a number of jobs, including raw milk cheese advocate, cheese judge and researcher. Born in Mexico, Yescas, 40, also distributes Mexican cheeses and is currently setting up a Latin American cheesemaker network to connect producers there with “scientists, gastronomers, chefs, researchers and historians,” from around the world. He hopes to keep traditional cheesemaking going and growing in Latin America and around the globe, which he explains is in danger of disappearing. Oh, and he also throws clay in his spare time.
CC: What first brought you into the cheese world?
CY: My dad used to work for a government agency in Mexico that helped food producers get titles to their land, and about once a month, he would go somewhere in Mexico to visit people to help them. Every time he went, he would bring back food from the producers that he had received as thank you gifts. One time he went to Chihuahua, in the north part of Mexico, close to the U.S. border, to see cheesemakers. When he came back, he brought a big wheel of Chihuahua cheese. I think it was like 20 pounds, wrapped in cloth and made by Mennonites. They make cheese in the style they brought with them from Europe. This cheese kind of changed my life.
CC: What? The cheese changed your life?
CY: I didn’t know anything about the Mennonites in Mexico and the story behind them. I didn’t know much about cheese. I always liked cheese, but at that moment, when my dad told me about the Mennonites, I really fell in love with the story of those cheesemakers. Two years later in 1994, which was a very special moment in Mexican history, I was again confronted with my own assumptions about what it meant to be Mexican. January 1, 1994 was the day Mexico entered NAFTA, and also the day the Zapatista movement made itself visible in the state of Chiapas, that day everything changed. Many of us, had to think about our place in the world as citizens, but also as people. Being an urban kid, I never really thought about agriculture. But every step of the way — in college and grad school — cheese, cheesemaking and cheese mongering kept reappearing. It became an option for work, or research, but for a long time I sort of resisted it. I thought of cheese as a hobby. I liked eating it and hearing stories about it.
CC: When did cheese become the focus of your work?
CY: It was not until much later that I became interested in the development aspect of agriculture and how cheese and other food production can become part of developing rural communities. After finishing a Masters in law in Ireland, I ended up working at the United Nations in New York. I started working on humanitarian aid, then onto migration and indigenous people issues and eventually wound up at the United Nations’ Development Program. There, I became aware of how migration is an economic necessity for many people all over Latin America, but sometimes some people do not want to leave their countries. So, we were working at the UN to make sure that governments around the world understood migration was considered an option, but not the only solution. We understood that economic opportunity was needed to ensure people could stay home. However, as with many other things, there is a lot of work and plans at the United Nations, but it takes time to bring those plans to the ground. Also, in many places, the work in communities is actually quite hard, since almost no one is doing that local level work. Understanding this would eventually make me decide to start an organization that would help cheesemakers in Mexico to better their products and access expertise. We created the Mexican Institute for Cheese, and along with my sister, we also started a distribution company—Lactography. The plan was to be the partner on the ground working with cheesemakers who are located in different regions of Mexico so that they have the opportunity to stay. We are a socially responsible company that is value-driven.
CC: When did you start the cheese distribution company?
CY: Lactography started in 2009, and it’s a growing concern. We just opened an office in the Mayan Riviera, and we have the main office in Mexico City. We now source cheeses from 10 Mexican states from over 15 producers and sell to restaurants and stores in Mexico City, Guadalajara, Monterrey, Merida, Cancun and Playa del Carmen. My sister runs the entire operation, I just now help in selecting the cheeses and cheesemakers we will be buying from.
CC: You also work in the U.S., right?
CY: Yes, I work part-time for the Oldways Cheese Coalition. After working at the UN and opening the distribution business, I decided to study for a Ph.D. in politics in the U.S. We lived in New York City while my husband and I went to grad school and then we moved back to Boston. My husband started his academic career at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and about three years ago he came to the University of Michigan. While I was in Boston, I was looking around for things to do, and the job at Oldways sort of came up. They were looking for someone with a research and policy background, and someone with cheese expertise who knew how to run a program. I had done all three, so I was the right fit.
CC: What is the primary purpose of the program at Oldways?
CY: We promote artisanal cheese, protect traditional cheesemaking practices and celebrate raw milk cheese. We are trying to expand the conversation in the U.S. and around the world about the need to protect traditional products and also eat healthy. Oldways does tremendous work in many areas, including the promotion of the Mediterranean diet and introducing whole grains to consumers. My goal is to do the same for cheese. People should not be afraid to eat good cheese. Our biggest and most important event is Raw Milk Cheese Appreciation Day. This is an international celebration that happens on the third Saturday of April every year. In 2018, we had over 700 events in 22 countries promoting traditional cheeses and traditional cheesemaking practices.
CC: What about raw milk cheese do you celebrate?
CY: It is good for the environment and your gut, and it is delicious. We conducted a survey in 2015 of U.S. consumers and found out people choose raw milk cheeses because they want to support small producers. This is good, because most artisanal producers have a positive impact in the conservation of rural environments. We are losing farmland to suburban housing, so by keeping farms alive, we are containing the sprawl.
CC: What’s the current status of raw milk cheese laws, and do you see that changing?
CY: There is nothing happening in the U.S. We have a federal law that applies to the production and sale of raw milk cheese. It allows for the sale of aged cheese, and it is based on a 60-day aging period. It doesn’t seem like it will change and that anyone wants to change it. It has been the same law for about 60 years.
CC: Would you like to see any changes to the law?
CY: I wish that it would be updated and include the science that we now have to understand about how pathogens work and spread. There is a need for some kind of controls and regulations, so people don’t make raw milk cheese from their home and try to sell it. But I also don’t want to have very hard and fast rules, which would act like a complete ban on all cheeses made with raw milk.
CC: Do you think your law background helped or hurt you in your career?
CY: I think it has helped me in ways where I’m not intimidated when I encounter rules and regulations, and that’s always a good thing. I also understand the government is not a mystical entity and the policy can be altered. We just need to have the right tools to do it. However, sometimes I feel there are expectations that we have of doctors, lawyers and architects that may be overblown. We are only as good as we want to be. I often get questions, or have discussions, in which people feel like I should know more than the person I’m talking with, but sometimes I know just as much. This is why I try to listen and read widely about many topics. I think both law school and the doctoral program gave me that skill.
CC: What was your career plan when you went to law school?
CY: I wanted to be an Ambassador for Mexico, working on human rights issues.
CC: What made you change your path?
CY: I think there is a lot more work to do helping producers and everyone who is making cheese, and the world is bigger than Mexico and even the U.S. So I thought I’d rather work for an ideal, rather than a country.
CC: Where do you currently live?
CY: I’m living in Ann Arbor, MI. My husband is a professor of anthropology in the architecture department at the University of Michigan.
CC: It sounds as though you’ve moved a lot.
CY: A lot. Apart from Mexico and the U.S., we also lived in China. I did a semester of grad school in Paris and my law degree in Ireland. It is fun to live in another country people normally think is fancy, but it is actually the opposite. It makes you really scale down to essentials and to question a lot of the assumptions you have about what the right way is to be. China was fun and very different. It was great to be in a place where you don’t speak the language, and you can’t even read what is written; it makes you careful about the world.
CC: What inspired you to become a vegetarian?
CY: I have been a vegetarian for about 10 or 12 years. I don’t even remember anymore, it has been so long. I think meat consumption is not ecologically sustainable anymore. I love vegetables. There are so many options.
CC: What’s your favorite cheese?
CY: Shropshire Blue. It is a Blue cheese that is colored with annatto, so the paste is orange instead of white. And I think that the annatto gives it a sort of earthy taste that I find very pleasant.
CC: Do you think there will ever be a time when Americans will be too overwhelmed by the kinds of cheese available?
CY: That is very interesting. I know a lot of people are intimidated when they are in front of a cheese case, but I don’t think they are overwhelmed by options. The Greek population eats the most cheese in the world. They consume about 68 pounds per person a year and Americans are at 33.5 pounds a year, per capita. So, I’m guessing there will be a time that we will be overwhelmed. I think first we will have each to be eating 68 pounds a year.
CC: Are there underrated cheeses you wish were more popular?
CY: I think some of the American Originals are completely underrated and are wonderful cheeses. Teleme, for example, is a cheese that has been around for a very long time. Because they were made by many producers and had one name, [but the nuances of flavor depended on each producer,] it kind of allowed for a collective view of the cheese. Now a lot of cheese is about one producer making one cheese. The problem with that is, if the company stops making it, the cheese disappears. If we want agriculture that lifts a rural community, I think it’s better to have something that many people can benefit from. Cheeses from Latin America are also totally underrated — even in Latin America. Brazilian cheesemaking is fantastic. Brazil has diversity from the jungle to cold winter climates with mountains and valleys. Cheeses are produced everywhere, so the flavors and styles are so different. In [North] America we know nothing about them.
CC: Is there a connection between cheese and politics? If so, please explain what it is.
CY: I think cheese is a perfect example of a food that touches on questions of agriculture, the environment, copyright, science and tradition. So when we are talking about cheese politics, we are really talking about all of these things combined. Cheese is a good way to explain to people how one policy can affect many outcomes. I can give you an example. Climate change is happening. There’s less snow on the top of the Alps, which means in the spring when the ice and snow melt to make the pastures green, we have less opportunity for good pastures. This affects the amount and quality of grass that cows eat, which ends up affecting how much Gruyère and the quality that we have. If we don’t address climate change, we are going to end up losing a cheese, and we may end up losing all of the culture that is around that cheesemaking.
CC: As a professor, what do you enjoy most about teaching?
CY: I love hard-working students. I think being a student is such a privilege that you are given the time to think. Most of us don’t have this. I like teaching about food regulations. I think it combines all of my expertise, and I feel like the students leave with some real-life lessons.
CC: Can you share some interesting facts about the history of cheese that you think most Cheese Connoisseur readers may not know?
CY: There were no dairy animals in the Western Hemisphere before the arrival of European settlers. This means there was no dairy culture anywhere in the Americas before Spanish monks, Italian herdsmen and English and Dutch dairymaids started making cheese with the techniques brought with them from Europe. This also meant, that the native populations were not used to drinking milk or eating cheese as adults, resulting in higher lactose intolerance amongst the local population. At first, European settlers secretly guarded cheesemaking knowledge from indigenous peoples of the Americans, but eventually this would change.
Unfortunately, most of the written history of cheeses doesn’t account for cheesemaking in Latin America. There are a couple of documents, but most of the knowledge is anecdotal. What is written and published is in Spanish or Portuguese, but little is translated. This is the reason I have worked diligently to communicate in English to reach a wider audience. However, sometimes amongst U.S. and European scholars, there is a blindness towards cheesemaking culture in Latin America.
People often describe our cheeses as bland and simple, without a real investigation or understanding of the styles and uses of our cheeses. Now the situation is even worse; homogenized cultures and standardized rennet produced by conglomerates in Europe are entering the Latin American market, and this means that native cultures are being quickly replaced. I think we have a window of about five years to ensure that we understand the microbiology of our cheeses, before we permanently lose them, and we end up making substandard copies of European cheeses with milks that are better suited for cheeses traditionally made for our cuisines.
CC: What are your interests besides cheese?
CY: I like art, especially installation art, and I like to travel.
CC: Where is the place where you’ve been that you most wish you could revisit?
CY: San Sebastián. I actually have been there three times, and I wish I could retire there. The food is amazing, the cheese is amazing and the city is gorgeous.
CC: I understand that you are also a potter?
CY: Yes, I took up pottery about a year ago because I needed an outlet and something not in front of a computer screen. But I am not very good. I’m still in the beginners’ class.
CC: What kind of pottery making do you do?
CY: I use a wheel. I have done freeform, but I like the wheel better. I feel it is a lot like cheesemaking, it is very tactile. You need to know when the clay is ready to form, just like you need to know when curd is ready to be cut.
CC: What’s the next project on your horizon?
CY: I am starting a new organization that is called the LACTEO Network—Latin American Cheese Training, Empowerment and Outreach Network. It is to create a platform to educate, empower and promote Latin American cheesemakers. I have a lot of plans. For the last three years, I have traveled often to Latin America, plus worked in Mexico. I have noticed that there is a lot of talent and expertise that needs to be promoted—cheesemakers, Latin American scientists, who are working with cheese, gastronomers, chefs, researchers and historians, who are doing a lot of work to understand the culture of cheesemaking in Latin American countries. But everyone is working separately. My network is an effort to bring all that work together, so that everyone can benefit from it.
CC: How will your bring people together with the network?
CY: We are going to have regional conferences and do trainings in various countries. We are starting in Mexico in October with a cheesemaking workshop for professionals and then hopefully expanding to other places. I will be visiting Colombia and Brazil in the upcoming months to talk to producers and agricultural advocates, and I hope we can start doing cultural exchanges between cheesemakers in the U.S. as well as Europe and Latin America.
CC: What inspires you to do your work?
CY: I hope I’m creating a better world in rural communities.
Special Thanks: Cheese Connoisseur would like to thank Crown Finish Caves, Brooklyn, NY, who generously provided the use of their location for this photo shoot.