Cristina Gerez Webb, proprietor of El Capricho in San Miguel de Allende, makes some of the finest cheese in Mexico. But that’s not all. From her workshop and urban farm on the outskirts of town, she also makes goat-milk yogurt, cookies and seasonal fruit conserves, not to mention the chicken eggs, Thanksgiving turkeys and bees…
How long have you been making goat cheese?
I began making cheese and yogurt nine years ago.
Tell us about your goats.
I bought my first three goats from my assistant’s mother, who taught me how to milk them and to bottle feed the babies when needed. I borrowed my first stud from my friend Don Miguel Villalpando in Comonfort (a small town on the way to Celaya), and the herd began multiplying exponentially. I started with a mix of mountain goats crossed with the beautiful Saanen stud imported from Canada. This same friend showed up one day with a truckfull of Nubians that he no longer wanted because their milk output was nothing compared to the Saanen or French Alpine goats. Nubians are referred to as the “Jersey Browns” of the goat milk world, due to the rich butterfat and high solids ratio of their milk—which is actually perfect for making cheese! Don Miguel also gifted me two beautiful females, one Saanen and one French Alpine. Their daughters, the genetic result of a cross with the Nubian stud, are the pride of the herd. They’ve got the beautiful markings that are the trait of the Nubian hide, plus a larger frame and larger udder. The herd now numbers 76, which includes a batch of nine “cabritos” that are gaining weight—hopefully to be used for an Outstanding in the Field dinner early next year at Purisima de Jalpa that’s in the works with Hotel Matilda’s chef Jorge Boneta.
Which is your most popular cheese?
The bulk of my production is fresh cheese (chèvre), which is packaged with dried tomatoes in olive oil, garlic, and basil. Some of my restaurant clients prefer the unflavored version for the menu items they serve: a roasted vegetable sandwich at Cafe Rama; beautiful ravioli at The Restaurant; a strawberry and arugula salad Rosewood’s 1826; and a trio of dishes at Hotel Matilda.
Any new specialty projects?
Seasonally (in April/May), I produce a bandage-wrapped cheddar that ages for six months to a year. I’ve been working on two other versions of this cheese, one very simply crusted in rosemary, the other spotted with peppercorns and covered in ash from my favorite vineyard in Dolores Hidalgo, Bodegas Vega Manchon (producers of Cuna de Tierra). And there is a pet project in the works: producing a triple cream, bloomy rind camembert…. better than butter in a mashed potato. And at the creamery in Comonfort, I am expecting a delivery of sheep’s milk from a co-op in Queretaro. I’m planning to produce a “tres leches” (goat/sheep/cow) alpine-style waxed cheese.
Your strawberry-basil jam is incredible. What other flavors do you make?
Flavors depend on what’s in season. I have nagged my friends and relatives enough over the years that I now find feed sacks full of backyard orchard harvests on my doorstop. Recently simmered away: a spiced miniature mandarin orange marmalade (thin skin like a kumquat, but full mandarin orange flavor), a raspberry/fig/vanilla jam, bitter orange marmalade, ginger-pear jam. The vineyard sends over beautiful Black Fantasy grapes which simmer away to a thick grape jam—I just love the texture of the skins. The strawberry-basil jam is served at the Rosewood, as is the guayaba-cardamom.
How did you get started in all of this?
My father was a large scale dairy farmer in the ‘70s, so I grew up in the culture. My family was making butter from clotted cream as far back as I can remember. After living in New York for a while, I returned to SMA and ran a cafe out of the Biblioteca Publica. Then in 1998, my mother purchased an amazing property next to La Parroquia, which she restored
to splendor and we started La Capilla as a family business, half restaurant, half antique shop. After her death in 2001, my siblings and I continued the business, but I was no longer in the kitchen faced with high demands for my time and energy. I was here in my workshop creating chocolate bonbons and marmalade. The goats began as an extension of my garden, a curiosity to really learn where food came from. The nurturing care, the endless hours of work—and then the beautiful result.
When did the chickens come along?
The chickens also started as random gifts from friends. They’re of no specific breed. (I haven’t been able to track down a reputable heritage breeder in Mexico.) My hens give me about 140 eggs a week, most of which go into the cookies I produce. The rest go to Jason Malloff at Cafe Rama. A crazy amount of research has gone in to figuring out their diet, so as to not resort to commercially prepared feeds. They do a lot of foraging, but since we are in the desert, they are supplemented with seeds and sprouts, as well as little fresh water fishes for the protein.
And the turkeys?
I’m up to 18 turkeys now. Thanksgiving is right around the corner.
Any other new animals or developments?
With Hotel Matilda, I am now a beekeeper. I’ve got two hives on my property, and it’s a new challenge. The pain often involved in opening the hive makes me hesitate… but when you see that brown hum of activity and the gleam of new honey… it’s all worthwhile.
Anything else on the agenda for 2012?
I’m planning to open up the workshop for farm dinners. My friend Bernie McDonough has been instrumental in pushing for goat-centric meals served as close to the source as possible. It doesn’t get any closer than this.