Have you tasted the carabao cheese of Cebu? I’ve long associated the Filipino cheese, widely known as kesong puti (literally “white cheese” in Tagalog), with Laguna province in Luzon, and only knew that my home province of Cebu is also one of the centers of its production more recently.
Kesong puti is a soft, unaged white cheese traditionally made from the unskimmed milk of carabao, a native breed of swamp-type Asian water buffalo (Bubalus bubalis). It can also be made from cattle or goat milk, but the thicker carabao milk yields the most cheese. In the Visayas, it is called queseo (also spelled keseo, kiseyo, kesiyo or keseyo), a localized spelling of the Spanish quesillo, meaning “little cheese”. It is traditionally eaten with pan de sal bread. Since the 1980s, native carabaos have been crossbred with imported breeds of water buffalo (eg. Murrah buffalo) to produce hybrids for milk production. Since the 1990s, Murrah water buffalo and hybrids have been promoted by the Philippine Carabao Center for milk production.
Traditional cheese production in the province is centered in the municipality of Compostela, only an hour’s drive north of Cebu City. The town is considered the Queseo Capital of Cebu, and, since 2013, annually celebrates the Queseo Festival during the feast of the town’s patron saint, St. James the Apostle, to promote this cottage industry.
To get a firsthand experience of how this heritage food is made, I visited Barangay Lupa, the top cheesemaking community in town located in the mountains of the municipality. According to barangay captain Cecilia Sabas, there are 14 families commercially producing queseo in their village. Since cheesemaking starts in the wee hours of the morning, way before sunrise, I spent a night in the village. I was warmly welcomed to stay at the home of Merlita Calo, one of the most experienced local cheesemakers. The 58-year-old farmer and health officer has been making queseo for nearly four decades, since she was 19 years old.
The Calo smallholding at Purok Duranta owns three heads of dairy-type carabao: a cow, a calf, and a heifer. The caracow (mature female carabao) is milked every morning down the hill away from the house and road. A peaceful atmosphere ensures a high yield of milk, says Merlita, so they make sure no one disturbs their carabaos. As a matter of fact, their feisty caracow only trusts Nestor, Merlita’s husband, and refuses to be milked by anyone else – even Merlita herself!
I myself had to photograph the milking process from a fair distance away as to avoid upsetting the animal, which is very protective of its suckling calf. He only milks two of the four teats of the cow to leave enough for its calf. He was able to collect two liters of milk that morning. Carabao milk can be stored for a few more days in the freezer for later processing, but fresher milk yields more cheese, according to Merlita. As much as possible, the Calo family processes cheese from milk from their own carabao, but if milk collected isn’t enough for the day’s orders, they purchase milk from other farmers at ₱70 to 90 per liter.
Merlita and Nestor wakes up as early as 3:00 am to start making queseo for the day’s orders up to four times a week. After straining the milk, the liquid was heated in a pot for pasteurization. After a few minutes, the pot was removed from the open fire, and cane vinegar was slowly poured in the warm milk, which upon stirring quickly began to curdle. Other queseo cheesemakers use rennet or citrus juices instead of vinegar. Merlita scoops up the curds by hand and portions them using a mold, improvised from a circular plastic jar cover. Each portion was laid out in a pan, allowing the residual whey to drain, before it was seasoned with salt to taste, according the customers’ preferences. Up to nine portions of cheese can be made from a liter of carabao milk, depending on its freshness.
The queseo portions are individually wrapped in two pieces of banana leaves, which were collected and prepared by Nestor the previous day. The finished product was finally bagged for delivery to the neighboring territories of Liloan and Danao City. Nothing goes to waste: the discarded whey and banana midribs are fed to the pigs.
The Calo family can produced up to 240 pieces of queseo in one morning. According to Nestor, the money earned from queseo making – together with vegetable farming and livestock raising – have greatly improved their lives. As a result, they were able to send all of their children to school and upgrade their home into a concrete house. The humble queseo has definitely made their lives more delicious in more ways than one.
Where to Buy
On your next road trip north, stop by Compostela to buy queseo and support the local industry! Fresh queseo is available at the Dairy Box store of the Compostela Market Vendors Multi-Purpose Cooperative (COMAVEMCO) building along the main highway (near LBC Express Compostela). Prices are ₱35 per piece, and ₱100 for 3 pieces. Open daily from 8:00 am to 5:00 pm. Every Saturday, they sell their queseo at Cebu Farmers Market in Vibo Place, N. Escario St, Cebu City. For inquiries, contact Mercy Arenas at +63 9637930404. Queseo must be be kept refrigerated and consumed within 5 to 7 days.
For wholesale orders, contact cheesemaker Merlita Calo at +63 9317857242. For cheesemaking demonstrations at Barangay Lupa, please arrange your visits through barangay captain Cecilia Sabas, +63 9999907822. To get to Lupa, hire a habal-habal (motorcycle taxi) from the highway (30 minutes, ₱100 per way, good for 2 persons).