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Olive Puentespina: Cheese-Maker of Malagos Farmhouse

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The cheese products of Malagos Farmhouse may have received international acclaim, but thanks to the efforts of prized cheesemaker Olive Puentespina, their local heritage comes without question. An animal science major from the University of the Philippines, Los Baños, Puentespina began making cheeses in 2004. Since then, her name has become synonymous to Philippine cheese. Indeed, she has gotten far, but surprisingly, she didn’t need to look far to get there.

“I start with what material I have in abundance,” she said when asked of her process. “It fuels my desire to put to good use materials that I have plenty of.” These, of course, include milk from goats raised in her back yard, and other ingredients found in her hometown of Davao.

At her finest, Olive doesn’t just produce cheese; she celebrates the land that surrounds her. She’s not just a cheesemaker either; at the core, she is a patriot, a woman fueled by the desire to show what her country is made of and the potential it holds deep within.

Due to the success of Malagos Cheese, your name has more or less been tied to Philippine cheese. How does that affect your operation?

It makes selling cheeses much easier now. It did not come easy, though. I worked hard for six solid years to establish the name and the reputation. The opportunity that was given to me by chefs, restaurant owners and the general public did not just benefit me. More importantly, it opened “doors” for other local food processors to try and work on non-traditional products. And that, in a lot of ways, motivates me. I want to make better cheeses, and I want to keep the “door” open for other Filipino food processors. The pressure to be creative does not come from wanting to be on ‘top of my game’ but from an internal drive that is basically who I am.

Malagos Cheese’s success shows that there is, indeed, a healthy market for artisan cheeses in the Philippines. Can you describe the current mood of that market and explain as to why it is the way that it is?

Artisanal products, small and well made, seem to be the ‘ in ‘ thing in food now. But I believe it is still a niche market. People generally want to know where their food comes from and that great care was given to the creation of their food. We are also more aware of health issues now, and knowing the creative inspiration of artisan cheeses definitely helps in creating the mindset for healthier options in food.

How many kinds of cheeses does Malagos Cheese sell at the moment? Are there new variants you’re currently working on?

I have about 13 variants and am now working on ‘holey’ varieties, holey meaning encouraging formation of holes in the cheeses as in popular Swiss varieties. I have also used Philippine fruits and some herbs and spices that we grow in the farm in some of my fresh cheeses. I am also developing a blend for my fondue.

What is it about cheese-making and cheese itself that attracts you? And what has sparked your passion for the industry itself?

I love the science behind the art of making cheeses. I am challenged by numerous influences that can affect the final product. And I love eating cheeses, of course, and discovering ways to enjoy them.

What is your process in developing a new variant of cheese?

I start with what material I have in abundance. It fuels my desire to put to good use materials that I have plenty of. Then comes the taste. I have a taste profile in my mind that I expect to experience. And I will work on the protocol to achieve the other factors, such as texture, aroma, mouth feel. This will take anywhere from a day to several months to achieve. I will play with milk source, time, temperature, moulds, enzymes, aging process, starters. Most of the time, I hit it right; at other times, it is more challenging. But every time, the excitement escalates until I get it right.

Does traveling serve as an inspiration for you as well?

Definitely. When I first traveled, my cheese journey, as I call it, in 2008, was to find out how I was faring as a cheese-maker. I am the only cheese-maker I know who does the varieties I am working on, and I wanted to see how others do their craft. I went to small cheese-making facilities, mostly artisanal, in Wisconsin and Northern California. I tried as much cheese and wine pairing as I possibly could and immersed myself in the world of cheese. I visited dairy farms and asked farmers how they managed their herd, visited vineyards, and saw and experienced how to enjoy the wines and the paired cheeses. I caught the bug in 2008 and, as they say, I hit the ground running from then on.

What do you think makes Malagos Cheese stand out compared to international brands?

What distinguishes my cheeses from others is that they are truly Filipino, created and influenced by what I see and experience around me. The milk from which it was made from comes from our own herd that we raise with respect and care for. The cheeses are made daily from milk we harvest, with no hormones and antibiotics, and the cheeses are processed with no preservatives, extenders and any artificial ingredients. They are fresh and with less carbon footprint than imported cheeses.

Back in 2011, it was mentioned in a feature of the Philippine Daily Inquirer that you’re in no hurry to expand your business to international markets. Has your preference changed drastically since then, or has it relatively remained the same?

I have not changed my mind. The Philippines is a 99% importer of dairy products. There is a huge market to serve. What we need to do is to encourage the Filipinos to patronize local produce. This way, we can save dollar spending and hopefully improve the lives of dairy farmers in the country. I would love to be able to help inspire people to change their mindset about local and imported cheeses.

If you do plan to expand internationally, what places do you think Malagos Cheese would do well in and why? This is something I am not thinking about at the moment. We only ‘fly’ through the business class flights of our flag carrier. I do get inquiries for export to Asean countries, but at the moment, I really would be just happy to serve well-made cheeses in the Philippines.

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