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The Best Little Asaderos in Texas
Article first published in Vol. 11, 1993.
By Esther Fernandez; research contribution by Linda Tarin
There is a legend that credits an unknown Arab nomad with discovering cheese. It is that on one of his trips, he filled a saddle bag with milk to sustain him on a journey across the desert by horse. After several hours of riding, he stopped to quench his thirst only to find that the milk had separated into a pale watery liquid and solid white lumps.
Eugenio Licon (right) and Marco Arredondo begin spreading the cheese. Photo by Esther Fernandez
Because the saddlebag, which was made from the stomach of a young animal contained a coagulated enzyme known as rennin, the milk had been effectively separated into curds and whey by the combination of the rennin, the hot sun and the galloping motions of the horse. The nomad, unconcerned with technical details, found the whey drinkable and the curds edible. And so was born a food that would soon become a favorite food item for people all over the world.
One cheese that is familiar to people living on the border is a delicious white cheese known as asadero (also spelled azadero). If made locally by hand, it is found in packages of thin irregular rounds, soft and flexible. (The word asadero is used in speaking of the type of cheese; the plural asaderos is use to refer to the individual portions packaged much like flour tortillas.) Used in various Mexican recipes, asadero melts evenly and forms long, soft strands when you bite into it.
The method of making asadero was introduced to the Southwest by migrating Mexicans. This particular cheese is indigenous to the states of Chihuahua and Durango in Mexico. Eugenio Licon, owner of Licon Dairy, says, "Women would graze the cows by the river where plenty of fodder and water were available. Once the cows were done grazing, the women would milk them and begin making various cheese products. In order to preserve the milk, they would boil it, take it to the market, and it was during this process that the method of making asadero began. Because there was no refrigeration, the cheese was made daily to insure it would not spoil.'
The process of making asadero is important to the texture and flavor of this cheese. Licon is proud to say that his dairy is the only one in the area that still makes asaderos by hand. Licon, who's married and has three daughters and a son, says that the process of asaderos has been handed down in his family through generations.
This particular tradition began in 1928 by Mrs. Isabel Chavez, Mrs. Licon's grandmother. Chavez lived in the Ysleta region, better known then as San José, and she had a brother that owned a few cows. The cows were milked and the milk sold, but Chavez made asadero with the leftover milk. She would spend the day making the cheese and would sell it from house to house on the following day.
Soon after that, the cheese became so popular that people began coming to her house to buy it. In those days, Mrs. Chavez sold asaderos two for a nickel. As time progressed, the children grew up and went their separate ways, but the family remained although they ceased making cheese and selling it in her home.
In the hopes of continuing the family tradition, Licon's father-in-law started the dairy in 1948, later moving to its present location in San Elizario. Mrs. Chavez, who had kept the original asadero recipe, decided to make cheese again in order to make some extra money. She continued to do so until her husband sold the dairy for health reasons.
In 1963 Licon bought the dairy from his father-in-law, and he and his wife continued the tradition of making asaderos.
Licon believes his process of making asaderos is unique. It all starts about 3:30 every morning when the cows are milked, a process that in itself requires three to four hours. Each Holstein cow, a breed known for its superior production of milk, is milked twice a day, producing eight to ten gallons of milk daily.
Next comes the process of measuring the ingredients, which must be done precisely in order to obtain the unique quality, texture and flavor of this cheese. The right combination of sour milk and sweet milk is what gives asadero its rich taste, neither sharp nor sweet.
A substance called rennet is used to sour the milk must be used in the right amount or else the milk may turn out too sweet. This causes the cheese to come out rubbery. On the other hand, if the milk is too sour, the cheese will turn beige color. A half gallon of rennet is added to every 10 gallons of milk.
The sour and sweet milk are well mixed, poured into large vats and allowed to boil for 30 minutes. During this time, the milk is stirred by hand until it begins to coagulate.
The coagulated milk is then separated. The watery substance of the mixture, or whey, is fed to the calves. The thickened milk is cooked until it comes to a boil and then hand churned into a creamy white cheese. While still hot, Licon and his workers form the individual asaderos by hand.
Sealing packages of asadero. Photo by Esther Fernandez
Licon and his four employees, all members of the family, begin making asaderos at 5 a.m. and finish about 1 p.m. A visitor to the Licon dairy finds Licon and his employees singing and whistling to Spanish music as they work. The high spirited atmosphere reflects the satisfaction Licon and his family feel producing this delicacy even after 35 years.
The Licon Dairy makes 250 packages of 10 asaderos each daily and personally seals and inspects every package by hand for proper sealing. Each creamy, soft asadero is 6" in diameter, easily separated from the others even without paper between them. These asaderos aren't perfectly round, and they have a distinct taste and texture which separate them from the machine-made asadero you may find in the grocery stores.
Licon sell his asaderos for $2.50 per package, whereas at the grocery story you may find them priced at $3.99 or more per package. His customers come from all over. People from Chihuahua and as far as New York and Chicago come to stock up on Licon's asaderos. In this case Licon has been known to limit the purchases so that his local customers can be accommodated.
Licon remembers a time when the wife of a marine in Vietnam came to the dairy and bought several packages of asaderos and took them to Japan, where she was going to meet to her husband. Licon says that as long as the cheese is kept on ice or in the freezer it will not go bad.
And whether you use the cheese in your cooking or just roll it up in a warm tortilla and bite into it, one thing is certain: you're in for a special treat.
Located on the outskirts of San Elizario at 11951 Glorieta Road, the Licon Dairy is open from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Licon says, "Were are open everyday. Cows don't stop producing milk because it's Sunday." However, considering the cheese's popularity, it would be a good idea to call the dairy at 851-2705 to check on availability before making the trip.
One taste of Licon's asaderos is proof of the pride and joy that he takes in his work. And knowing how much his customers love his cheese is probably why Licon continues to make it by hand. Licon admits, "Making the cheese by hand is the hard way, but it makes the best cheese."
One can only hope that this wonderful tradition presently being kept alive by the Licon Dairy will continue to be passed on so that many more generations can enjoy he Best Little Asadero in Texas.