Meet the maker: the couple championing Mexican cheese

In their immaculate, compact ‘cave’ in Mexico City, Georgina Yescas and Jessica Fernandez are changing perceptions of their country’s cheese, one variety at a time.

By Deborah Gray
Published 31 Jul 2022, 06:10 BST
cheese board.

The ‘cheese ladies’ travel Mexico looking for artisan producers and currently buy cheese from 55 farmsteads across 10 states.

Photograph by Jessica Fernandez

“We want to change ideas about Mexican cheese,” declares Georgina Yescas, “and let people know that we have beautiful cheeses in Mexico.”

Georgina holds a soft, round panela cheese as if it were a precious jewel, while in the background, Jessica Fernandez, backlit by the fearsome afternoon sun, is carefully extracting the heart from an aged, butter-coloured cotija cheese — the Mexican equivalent of parmesan. The smell is rich, barnyardy and slightly sweet with a hint of mould. It’s wonderful.

We’re in Lactography, a cheese ‘cave’ located in an unprepossessing building in Mexico City’s old Roma district. In this tiny, functional space, we’re surrounded by humming fridges, specially designed to carefully age the cheese, and every nook is filled with chopping boards, cheese wires, brushes and knives.

Lactography owes its origin to chance. Georgina’s brother, Carlos, while studying in Ireland, took a job in a cheese shop. It was there he realised he had an exceptional palate, a discovery that eventually led him to take a course in cheese mongering in Switzerland. On returning to Mexico, he went to the southern state of Chiapas to judge a cheese competition and was astonished by the quality of the farmstead cheeses. It turned out these cheeses were virtually unknown outside the area, so Carlos decided to change that and convinced Georgina to join him.

Georgina Yescas and Jessica Fernandez. 

Photograph by Paulina Chavez

The company launched in 2012, with Jess joining two years later as an assistant, first falling in love with the cheese, then with Georgina, whom she later married. These days, Carlos leaves them to it, with Jess increasingly responsible for tending the cheese — maintaining the right conditions and supervising its maturation to develop the optimum flavour. She’s now taken her skills to another level, making her own beer-washed cheese, which can be found on the shelves of a Parisian fromagerie.

The ‘cheese ladies’ travel Mexico looking for artisan producers and currently buy cheese from 55 farmsteads across 10 states. When she first went out to the farms, Georgina was taken aback by the way in which cheesemaking was integrated into the relentless lives of farm women, who were largely unaware of the value of the skills they possessed. Most used traditional, family recipes without an understanding of the science. Part of Georgina and Jess’s role is to educate them, enabling these artisans to produce consistent, quality cheeses. The resulting cow, sheep and goat’s cheeses can be soft and fresh or hard and mature, but most are characteristically salty with an acidic tang.

“The men rule everything, but the women do everything,” Georgina explains. “They’re mothers, wives, homemakers — they tend the animals, milk the cows, make and sell the cheese, then write invoices. But they feel undervalued. We’re like psychologists. We help them with their self-confidence.”

Having started life very small scale, Lactography graduated to a store space within a covered market, before eventually upgrading to their compact but immaculate store in Roma. It’s been a bumpy ride, not least thanks to the pandemic, which caused many restaurants to close, leaving Georgina and Jess with fridges bursting with cheese. In desperation, they advertised on Facebook and in four days sold as much cheese as they normally sell to restaurants in a month.

Today, they’re continuing to build their business, judging and being judged in international cheese competitions and always enthusiastically spreading their passion for Mexican cheese.

Three Mexican cheeses to try

1. Panela
A fresh, enzymatic, slightly salty cheese made throughout Mexico from pasteurised cow’s milk. Used in sandwiches and salads and crumbled over beans, enchiladas and tacos; can be fried. 
Substitute: paneer for cooking, ricotta for crumbling.

2. Cotija Región de Origen
Dry, sweet, slightly grassy cow’s cheese made in the rainy season in the Michoacan mountains; aged for 12-24 months. Used in chile rellenos or nibbled with honey.
Substitute: parmesan, vintage cheddar.

3. Bola de Ocosingo
Unique to Chiapas, this ball of soft, mature cow’s cheese has an unusual silky texture. The ball is twice wrapped in Oaxaca (mozzarella-like) cheese and aged. Best eaten with crackers.
Substitute: Italian caciocavallo, edam.

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