The Cheese Run

The church we attend often functions like one church in three congregations. All three—and there is a fourth, but it is more independent—came about as the result of one missionary’s effort and their faith and practice keep them much together, besides the solidarity there exists between believers of the reformed persuasion here, there being rather few. In the northern congregation we made a couple of friends who took us on a cheese tour yesterday. The one is in the business and the other one is friendly though he’s in the software business.

Both friends live in Chia and so we started by going north to Bogota’s neighbor, the city of the moon. We met them at McDonald’s there, which does not open for breakfast. (The software friend made an interesting comment later in the day: on being asked about the food we said it was kind of devoid of variety, pointing out the soup. He told us how he’d gone to California and eaten a sandwich at every meal. Somehow in a conversation it came up and his hosts pointed out to him that the sandwich always had different things. He observed that it was not something he noticed, and then pointed out to us how Colombians think about their endless varieties of soup. And what really is variety?) From Chia we went to see the center of Cota: it has an octangular central plaza. The plaza is bisected by a road and not very usable now, but the thing was certainly a variation on the usual square. Every Colombian town or city has a central plaza with the church or cathedral and the government offices. In Cota they have the largest Indian reservation in the country, and as a result a lot of political instability: they can’t retain a mayor very long. The Indians apparently refuse many things, and considering Colombian politics in general, one wonders if they’re entirely wrong. They certainly have ancestral reasons for suspicion.

Between the town of Cota (soon Cota, Chia, Tabio, Tenjo and all these outlying villages are going to be suburbs of Bogota) and Siberia lay our two cheese factories. Our friend wanted to take us to one in Chia itself, but the owner had left for Switzerland the day before and allowed no tours without his presence. He is very strict. So we got to the first one, and the smallest one.

We were made to wear caps, face masks and dip the soles of our shoes in bleach-water before entering. What amazes me about the making of cheese is the amount of water involved, the wet tile floors, the steam. At this little factory they made a great variety of cheese: brie, edam, manchego, parmesan, gouda, camembert, among others. Many of these you might find in a grocery store, though finding edam will baffle you. They make it for Avianca and only sell it that way, unless you come to the plant and buy some directly. They also make yogurt, kumis and gallons of arequipe there.

I learned something about cheese in Colombia. They sell the parmesan already ground because that’s the way it is purchased, even though it would be better if restaurants ground it themselves on site. Why? That’s how they’re used to buying it. I learned that though Venezuela has less population they eat 30% more cheese because they eat it with every meal. They have a different cheese culture. I also talked with the proprietor about stronger cheeses and how he can’t do much with them here because it isn’t part of the way Colombians eat. Part of that is purchasing power too, he explained. I was interested to learn that he goes to Germany for half the year and comes to Colombia the other half. That is when I started asking about the European connection.

The main dairy production in our part of the country is out of Alpina, in Sopo. It was the product of a couple of Swiss (I think) chaps who began in the late 1940′s. That plant is now run by Colombians, but the Swiss and Germans they brought over to help in the earlier years spread out and began other little plants. So much of the industry is still controlled by people with strong ties to Switzerland and Germany. My friend in the cheese business sells culture to these cheesemakers, and he imports it from Denmark. He told me that people just regard this as the best, that an attempt was once made to produce the culture and such in Argentina once but that it went broke. He also told me he imports a bit from Wisconsin, but that the quality is inferior to the product of Denmark (STUPID GRINGOS!).

The friendly proprietor gave us all yogurt or kumis (something that to me tastes much like yogurt) and we thanked him and departed.

The next factory was close but further down a country lane. It was a bigger operation but of less variety. Here again the water, wet tile floors, the steam, and more machines. They make the popular, mild doble crema cheese, plus yogurt and kumis, and they also bag milk (milk is mostly sold in bags here). We saw the cheese swelling inside a plastic crate, watched the guy melt it further by stirring it with a paddle in a vat heated by steam, watched two chaps knead and work the shining mass with their hands, and then one chap cut pieces off deftly, weighed them (they were always accurate) and then toss them to another table where the pieces were rounded and put in molds by hand.

The friendly proprietess gave us all yogurt, and we expressed our gratitude and delight and departed.

We went in search of lunch next: through Cota, back to Chia and then on to Cajica. In Cajica is one of these cooperative resorts. By law, every employee is supposed to be provided with a membership to one of these cooperative resort, health, and other benefit societies (caja de beneficios, I believe they’re called). It provides accommodations and pools, saunas, lakes, golf etc. We went there to benefit from lunch at a reduced price. It is located near some rather sheer mountains glorious with eucalyptus; there is one that has been made all the more sheer by quarrying which has left a yellow cliff with parallel ledges on which the trees grow in a single row. You can see the layers of rock inside the mountain running not back and forth, but up and down, and it makes one feel very geological. The breeze is friendly, the sun is cheerful and hard, the eucalyptus are as graceful as ever. After lunch there was a general indulging of the children which involved sitting around, renting a paddle boat, sunburning, etc.

From Cajica we went onward toward Sopo. On the way we paused in a village that has sprung up beside the highway and obliquely opposite to the presidential finca. There they have some of the best almojabanas there are and we consumed ours with some liquid oatmeal they like to drink. Then Sopo, where the main dairy plant in this region exists (Antioquia has more dairy than Cundinamarca has, but I learned nothing of the paisa production). We went to The Cabin: a large grocery store with only dairy products produced by Alpina at no special discount. Then from there into the center of Sopo.

Sopo is dominated by the most amazing mountain behind it to the east. It is a wonderful sight to see in the late afternoon sun, with the timanzos circling above, the houses perched on its gentler slopes, the rocks protruding under the growth near its brows. The main plaza has charm and labeled trees. Some native gum trees were splendid: squat, thick of trunk, the trunk articulated into its several branches, the branches manifold and tending horizontally more than vertically. They had a great cedar there (cerela montana) whose leaves nothing resembled a cedar to me. It had many parasites growing on it and altogether the feeling of something old and very friendly. An acacia was there and one of these false willows one sees so much of in Bogota: Falso Pimiento (Shinus Mulle L, the latin title read) known in English as the Peruvian Peppertree.

The plaza had the church on the corner rather than the middle of the block, and this was wonderful with the smell of its age. The church is decorated with 17th Century paintings of the archangels: Michael, Gabriel, Raphael and Uriel you probably know, but Piel, Seachiel and Jehdiel among others are less familiar. A bulletin board explains the archangels to the curious. There are also some anonymous, dingy 18th Century paintings there. The ceiling is very high and simple, and to me the most interesting part of that quiet place is the ancient smell of it.

After Sopo we went back to Chia and wandered at twilight in its central places. They have blocked off the center to traffic and even bicycles cannot be ridden there. It was busy with lights from Christmas, with people, with shops, and with a few ambling police. A nice place to stroll of an evening, the city of the moon. One day I’ll have to go back to Chia to understand more its charms, but as it is presently rapidly becoming a part of Bogota, it will probably need to be sooner than later.

That was the cheese run, and pleasant with the country landscape and villages of Cundinamarca.

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