My trip to Costa Rica and the cheese I found there…
A week ago I came back from my trip to Costa Rica. We traveled all over the country for six days but I want to highlight the two days that we spent in Monteverde – that’s where the cheese is!
From Manual Antonio, a beach city on the Pacific Ocean, we hopped on a bus to the mountain town of Monteverde. The three hour ride was smooth enough except for the last unpaved, bone rattling 45 minutes. But once we got a look at the incredible view we forgot all about our pains.
The cloud topped hills of Monteverde are the stuff of postcard pictures. The soft mist, constant in the air, dampens the sound of the distant traffic. It rained every day since it was the green season. Still warm. everything smelled like damp hay.
After checking in at our hotel we decided to venture towards town. A dark, steep dirt road led to Hotel Belmar. We traversed it carefully, groping for trees and catching glimpses of headlights in the distance. We found our way to the main road and walked along until we saw Pizzeria de Johnny. Not our destination, but when buckets of rain suddenly fell from the sky, we ran inside Johnny’s for shelter. A little on the Olive Garden side, this restaurant caters to tourists. All the waiters speak English, and all you see are American and European people happily eating something that reminds them of home. That said, you would think it’s the same fast food Italian you’ve had before, but it’s not. We found one of the best pizza places we’ve ever been to –- and we live in Chicago. The pizza I had was called “The Monteverde” and it’s their most popular meal. They make their own crust and top it with locally grown vegetables (leeks, eggplant, onions…) and cheese, which is a combination of cheese made in the restaurant and at the local cheese factory. It was out of control.
Full and completely content, we headed back up the mountain to our hotel. The next day we woke up early because we had a reservation for the Monteverde Cheese Factory. First breakfast! The complimentary meal at the hotel included ‘casado’ (literally means ‘marriage’, it is a mix of seasoned rice and black beans), guava and homemade banana bread. Once fed, we were on our way down the road to the factory.
Situated right next to the Monteverde Cloud Forest Preserve, the view from the cheese factory is breathtaking. In 1951 a group of American Quakers who did not agree with the mandatory draft for the Korean War, fled to Costa Rica, since Costa Rican government had recently dissolved its military. They soon founded the town of Monteverde. In 1953, they created the cheese factory.
At first they used old Quaker oat cans to press the cheese, but that was when they had two employees and received milk from their own cows. Within two years the factory was bustling with new equipment and taking in milk from local farmers from 120 miles away.
Today the cheese they make is sold all around Costa Rica and most of Central America. They hope to expand even more and maybe sell it in the U.S. From the whey leftover from the cheese, they make dulce de leche candies. Even more leftover whey goes to to feed the hogs in their pig farm. Those hogs become locally cured meats that supplement the sales of the cheese. What began as a group of friends making a living became a large corporation. Keeping with their Quaker values, no one shareholder can have the majority of the stock (the most anyone can have is 5% at a time).
When visiting a cheese factory, set your entertainment standards low since, as we know, making cheese is a bunch of sitting around and waiting. It was awesome to see the giant presses, pressing thousands of cheese blocks at a time, though. The factory was plain, stainless steel and the milk testing lab was simple and resembled a High School science class. I appreciated the blandness of the place since it was a cheese factory not an amusement park.
We were allowed to walk around the perimeter of the pressing and cooking room and peek in on the testing lab. We were also shown a slide show of the history of Monteverde and the cheese factory. After that – the best part – cheese tasting. We tasted the factory’s first cheese, Gouda followed by many others. I liked best, the original Monte Rico, which the Quakers created with a recipe right at the factory. After the tasting the tour, we circled back around to the store where everyone could buy milkshakes and cheese to take home.
I’m glad that we went. It is always encouraging to hear stories of people who have no idea what they’re doing, taking a chance on something totally new. and then succeeding. To a lot of people, making cheese seems crazy. If Americans with no dairy experience or knowledge of Spanish language can move to Costa Rica and start a factory, then we all can certainly making some Brie in our kitchen.
I recommend that everyone take a trip to Costa Rica sometime soon. Draped in the incredible natural landscape, the towns of this country are full of passionate, friendly people who just want to teach you about their country. The food is incredible as it is usually homemade. The sketchiest of places have gardens out back where you can see the chef picking ingredients. You can smell baking bread everywhere. And the plantains! The fruit here is so delicious and sweet. I digress.
Hope you enjoyed my trip to Costa Rica, and I hope it inspired you to visit soon as make more cheese soon!