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Located less than 200 kilometers from Mexico City, Tequisquiapan is one of Mexico’s Pueblos Mágicos, or Magical Villages, places deemed to be rich in cultural traditions and symbolism by the country’s Secretariat of Tourism. Before Covid times, it was a favorite weekend getaway and a popular place to unwind.

The “magical” qualities of the town are plentiful. Tequis, as locals call it, first became famous for its hot springs. The area is also ideal, weather-wise, for growing wine grapes, even in spite of the occasionally severe winters. International brands such as Martell, and later Freixenet, developed vineyards in the area; the latter now makes excellent sparkling wines using méthode champenoise as well as reds and whites here.

Before the pandemic stopped everything, Tequisquiapan’s Feria del Queso y el Vino – National Cheese and Wine Fair – was one of the country’s most important wine events, topped only by the Valle de Guadalupe Festival, a large affair held each year in Ensenada, Baja California, to celebrate wine, food and music.

While we certainly don’t mind a tasting or two, we drove to this picturesque village for queso, not vino. In particular, to pay a visit to Cava Bocanegra, a singular project undertaken by Iker Pedrero, the owner of the Quesos Néole cheese factory. When he decided to focus on aged cheese, he built an underground cave that was meant to replicate a natural grotto under controlled conditions.

Cava Bocanegra

Born in Mexico City, Iker moved to Tequisquiapan 30 years ago. Before dedicating his life to cheese, he worked in the agricultural sector growing vegetables and chiles. But after taking part in a cheese tasting led by Carlos Peraza, one of Mexico’s top cheese experts, Iker found himself enamored by queso. He switched gears, opening his Quesos Néole factory and, later, Cava Bocanegra – the cave and attached restaurant have been open to the public only a few years and, like many other food and beverage businesses, were hit hard by the pandemic.

But to their benefit, they are located out in the countryside, 8 km from the center of Tequisquiapan. The drive there is captivating: fields are dotted with vineyards, and the mountains on the horizon give way to an immense bright blue sky. Cava Bocanegra is located at the end of a gravel road, and once you arrive, it almost feels as if you’ve been transported to Italy. In fact, Iker’s wife and her family are from an area north of Venice and speak the Veneto dialect, which Iker pulls from to name some of his products (other names are inspired by the local history or environment). They have set up a beautiful outdoor seating area where you can enjoy a wonderful cheese tasting with a pairing of either wine or craft beer, all while taking in the beautiful and relaxing landscape.

Iker takes us down inside the cave to give us a closer look at the cheese. “Here is where magic happens,” he says, gesturing to his quesos madurados, or aged cheeses – some are almost ready while others still have weeks yet.

“Here is where magic happens,” he says, gesturing to his quesos madurados, or aged cheeses.

“We keep the temperature in the cave between 16 and 17 degrees Celsius and 85 to 90 percent humidity and practically no air flow,” he explains. “What are we looking for? We want the bacteria to evolve, because cheese is a live product. A similar process occurs when you rest and age wine in barrels.”

Iker is currently working on a new project with a local goat milk producer to create a type of Manchego-style goat cheese. He shows us how the necessary bacteria are already present in the rind of the cheese. But we’ll still have to wait a bit to taste the final result.

In another area of the cave, Iker makes queso Vecchio, which requires six months’ rest down here. Every single piece of cheese must be turned over daily, an important process that Señora Pilar, one of the oldest members on staff, oversees.

“This cheese here is very interesting,” says Iker, pointing at the shelf below the queso Vecchio. Yet we only see clay pots. Sensing our confusion, he continues: “We’re making Gazta Zaharra, a cheese commonly made in Basque Country, in northern Spain. Once this cheese reaches its peak maturity, we chop it up and put it into a clay pot together with tequila and anis to perform a three-month second fermentation. Usually it’s enjoyed spread on top of toast with a little bit of butter.”

Iker also collaborates with other local cheesemakers. “We make our Romance cheese in conjunction with Gaby Flores, the cheesemaker behind El Rebaño. We use a 60-percent cow, 40-percent sheep milk formula created by the cheese master Iñaki Tablado. Every two weeks we make a batch together, then we split it and each quesería leaves the cheese to mature in his or her own cave. The results have been amazing. If you taste both you could not tell that they came from the same batch,” Iker says. “The unique conditions of each cave gives very different results, even using the same base.”

Semi Desierto is Iker’s favorite product. Following a cow milk Spanish-style cheese recipe, this cheese is left for 100 days in the cave. The subtle spicy flavor makes Semi Desierto a huge hit with the Mexican market.

Iker makes other types of cheeses, including Misionero, a Swiss-style cheese with paprika, Provenzano, Trápola and more, which are sold on the premises, at the Quesos Néole store in Tequis, and online. When we ask about the recipes, he says that they’re mostly set in stone, and have been for a while. “When it comes to cheese, what matters are the particular characteristics of the local milk you have access to, the geographical area you are located in, the specific and unique conditions of your cave, and the adoption of new technologies and modern equipment,” he says.

“We have even ended up creating very interesting cheeses through our ‘errors’ in the process, which turned out to be wonderful developments,” he adds. We look forward to tasting these cheesy mistakes.

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