A Day in the life of a Salvadoran cheese maker

The most important, mission critical duty of a Peace Corps volunteer is becoming a trusted member of their community. We believe integration is fundamental to accomplishing any kind of sustainable community development. It comes before everything.

While integration was a critical component to doing my job, it also feels good. We all want to be part of a community, especially thousands of miles away from home. When I first arrived in Upire, the townspeople referred to me as la gringa that walks (a lot) in ugly sandals. Frankly, I hated that. It made me feel lonely, like an outsider that doesn’t belong. I desperately wanted to be Jamie: Upirena, friend, sister, daughter, youth group leader, teacher, and walker.

How do we integrate? How do we define success? Is it just a feeling?

I needed something tangible to point to that demonstrated I was indeed part of the community. In El Salvador, food is how people show their love. At the center of town, guests always poured into our house. Without fail, my host mom handed out her fresh made cheese and hot tortillas. My host mom was popular, but I think her cheese was even more so.

Two months in, I set out to learn to make cheese exactly like my host family. The day that I could do it alone and they could entrust me with their livelihood would be the moment I knew I was in, one of them. Or at least pretty damn close.

When I started this journey, I had no idea what it took to make cheese at home every single day. Nor did I fully appreciate the difference this made in my family’s quality of life. The cheese business gave them economic stability and a more varied (see options below) diet rich with protein. It is also gave them a full time job.

Making cheese takes all day. It demands commitment and discipline.


It starts with a cow

5:00 am : First, we milk the cows. It is really hard and it’s super early. We are all a little uncooperative. My extended family has about 15 cows. Sometimes this feels like we have 15 infants. Cows have to be fed, watched, and gated often. And when one goes missing, all hell breaks loose.

Wanda

Milk

7:00 am — 8:00 am : We bring in the milk, put it through a sieve, and then leave it to rest in this big bucket (making sure to cover it). This early in morning we sell milk six cups for $1.

Bringing in the milk

Sour Cream

12:00 pm : Around lunch time, we skim the first layer of cream that covers the surface. Cream is one of the most popular items in El Salvador and costs $1 per cup. The consistency of it changes over time. You may prefer it fresco (fresh that day and very sour) or after it ages (and some arm work, it becomes butter).

My host mom skimming the first layer of cream

More Sour Cream

4:00 pm : We skim another layer of cream. After this step, we are left with semi-skimmed milk.

Cuajada

5:0o pm : We use the semi-skimmed milk to make cuajada, a soft spongy cheese. First, we put in the rennet (a small, white pill), which will separate the solid curds from the liquid whey. We use the heat of our hands to form the curds quickly. Once it looks like the photo below, we cut the block into cubes, and add a lot of salt. In El Salvador, a pound of cuajada costs $1.75.

Hands form cheese

Hard Cheese

5:30 pm: Instead, if we want to make hard cheese, we can take the cuajada, crumble it into tiny pieces, add a lot of salt, and put it in a cheese mold. There it will sit anywhere from three days to weeks (it can become like Parmesan). Hard cheese is popular and expensive at $3 a pound.

Host Dad prepares cheese block

Requeson

7:00 pm : Requeson is similar to fat free ricotta cheese. Remember when you separate the curds from the whey? We take the whey, put it over the fire, and boil it. The requeson rises to the surface, we remove it from the fire, and then put it in a cloth to strain (and cool down). It costs $1 per cup and is unpopular in El Salvador. There’s some kind of stigma against fat free cheese.

Requeson straining

7:30 pm : We gather around the small table in the kitchen for a dinner of hot tortillas, beans, and of course cheese. We talk about the weather often. El Salvador is subject to all types of severe weather: drought, mudslides, flooding, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions to name a few. This conversation topic might be repetitive, but it matters a great deal.

8:00 pm : We sleep. We do have to be up again at 4:30 am.


It took 10 months to learn to complete this entire process on my own. I’ll never forget the way my host family looked at me when I served them my cheese. They were proud. They bragged about me to incoming guests and even served them my cheese! I felt like their daughter.

My host family was proud of me, but I was in awe of them. Making cheese takes all day. Everyday. There’s no such thing as a day off. It’s not even a question.

Except maybe when I am there.