Having grown up in Puerto Rico I can attest to the lack of awareness about how our food is made, where it comes from and how it ends up on our plate. A lot of our education as consumers falls squarely on us; but sometimes the information you’d like or need is not readily available or, worse yet, is not sought out. During our time with the Global Food Cultures study abroad session, this has not only been reinforced but has in fact been revealed as a problem not only for consumers but also for food producers. On Tuesday we met with a few shining examples of small business owners who have taken it upon themselves to create a better, more functional food system by both setting up farmers for success through consultation and also by inviting customers into a conversation about agricultural products in order to create more thoughtful consumers
Wanda Otero’s Quesos Vaca Negra is a prime example of this. A microbiologist, she has dedicated her career to the improvement and quality control of milk production in the northern coastal municipality of Hatillo, aptly known as the “Capital De La Industria Lechera,” (capitol of the milk industry). Her business and that of the farmers she works with was heavily impacted during the recession; farmers were unable to pay for her services and their debt grew. She came up with a perfect solution; farmers would pay their debt to her in milk. With her own background in the sciences and help from consultants from France as well as cheese-making conferences and seminars, she developed the production of a drinkable yogurt as well as five varieties of aged, raw cheese, each named after the farm or region where the milk was sourced: Ausubal (made from milk sourced in Hatillo), Capaez (similar to a gruyere, made from milk sourced in Hatillo), Cabachuelas (made from milk sourced in Morovis), Monserrate (similar to a cheddar, made from milk sourced in Manati) and Montebello (similar to a manchego, made from milk sourced in Manati). The only operation of its kind on the island, Quesos Vaca Negra can be found across the island. Wishing to share her work and findings with customers, she began offering cheese-making tours, where a group of up to 26 people come by for a tour of their facilities and for a cheese-making session; these are offered 2-3 times a week, usually on weekends, and after a two-month aging period the cheeses can be picked up at their facilities or shipped to you.
Similarly, Tara Rodriguez Besosa of El Departamento de la Comida strives to help both her farmers and customers become familiar with good practices and products. El Departamento de la Comida is a branch of the larger Efecto Sombrilla, a non-profit umbrella organization that also includes A Pico y Pala (promoting social, environmental and food justice/sovereignty through community gardens and agricultural projects) and the upcoming Sambumbia (a mobile agro education center). Her non-profit food hub is an urban market for local, organic agricultural goods, through individual purchases, CSA boxes and sales to restaurants. Her for-profit enterprise, the adjacent and absolutely delicious Fiambrera uses these goods as well to make outstanding vegetarian dishes. In order to provide goods of the highest quality, Rodriguez Besosa makes 1-2 farm visits a week, consulting with farmers about what goods and practices work, what doesn’t, as well as offering them orientation, branding and marketing in order to better establish themselves as the legitimate, quality producers they already are. She provides an intermediary between farmers and restaurants, working on logistics and communication. For her own market, she says it takes her about twenty minutes to sell a product; this is because she wants to talk to her customers, explain to them where one particular item or other comes from, how it’s grown, how it gets here, what its benefits are, how it can be prepared, what it would taste marvelous with. El Departamento de la Comida is a liason between producer and consumer, supporting and enriching both.
For more about Quesos Vaca Negra, watch their video, visit their Facebook or reach out to them by phone at (787) 262-5656 or email at email@example.com. Their address is HC 06 Box 10554, 00659 Hatillo, Puerto Rico and are open M-F 8a-4p and Saturdays 8a-1p.
For more about the contemporary food culture of Puerto Rico, and a bit more about El Departamento de la Comida, The New York Times recently published a wonderful article about “Reclaiming Puerto Rico’s Food Paradise.“