Casa Lila in San Juan

Casa Lila in San Juan

Activity holidays are growing in popularity. It’s possible to learn to dive, take the perfect picture or speak a second language during a vacation. I’ve come to Puerto Rico’s historic capital, San Juan, to meet the woman who is offering a course that you wouldn’t expect to find in the Caribbean. At least four times each week, Rosa Avalo encourages visitors and locals to share her passion for cheesemaking.

“It’s in my blood,” explained Rosa as she guided me around her beautiful, 300-year old townhouse, which doubles as her classroom. She bought her home next to the ancient San Juan city wall 12 years ago. Rosa’s childhood nickname was ‘Lila’, or lilac in English. The play on words, based on her name, gets lost in translation from Spanish but she’s named her historic home Casa Lila and painted it appropriately. Government officials need to agree any new paint colours against an approved pantone chart. The lilac hue of the house was fine so the building is both beautiful and easy to find.

Inside her home and, with apparent pride, Rosa showed me a framed black and white picture of her grandparents. They were dairy farmers in the days when Puerto Rico produced its own food. Now most produce is imported from the United States. When the business passed to Rosa’s parents the government had a rigid milk production quota for farmers. They would only pay producers for their agreed amount. The family weren’t remunerated for the excess milk that they handed over so they decided to use it for themselves. Making cheese was the best use of the milk.

“We just sold it to friends and family but the word quickly spread,” says Rosa. “It was possibly illegal, too!” she laughs.

As a teenager, Rosa would come home from school and go straight to the dairy to learn the process of cheese making and soon became an expert maker, specialising in Queso Blanco, the traditional Puerto Rican soft white cheese. Ten years ago she started her own commercial venture, Quesos Vaca Negra, with a business partner to whom Rosa recently sold her share.

Rosa Avalo at work in her kitchen.

Rosa Avalo at work in her kitchen.

One wall of her downstairs corridor is covered with framed articles documenting her cheese-making awards and business achievements. “It was a big success because the product was different,” she explained. “It tasted better to what was on offer.” Rosa believes that the imported US factory-made commercial cheeses have given the product a bad name. “I want to teach Americans that Cheddar cheese should not be orange,” she told me. Rosa believes passionately that cheese makers need to use raw milk, something that the US commercial dairies are not allowed to do.

I sat on Rosa’s living room sofa as she handed me a cup of strong, black Puerto Rican coffee and placed two plates of cheese, cut into triangular shapes, on the chunky, dark wood coffee table in front of me. One of the selections was seeded and tasted spicy. The other was infused with sweet Caribbean fruit. It could be mango or papaya. It was milder and creamier. Both cheeses tasted really good and I was pleased that Rosa was doing the talking – it allowed me to try a few more delicious pieces!

“That’s what I teach people to make,” Rosa told me as I polished off my fifth triangle. I tried to rearrange the cheese shapes to make it look like I’d eaten fewer. She knew.

It struck me that Rosa doesn’t have the appearance of someone who eats a great deal of cheese. She’s slim and if you saw her pass in the street you might think she was an actress, model or singer. “I go salsa dancing a few times each week at Nuyorican Café on Calle San Francisco,” she told me. That’s a San Juan hotspot. Visitors and locals flock there for dancing and vibrant Latin beats and rhythms most evenings. That level of exercise explained how Rosa maintains her culinary passion without piling on the pounds.

I’ve finished munching my samples, now it’s down to business. Rosa’s course began with a test to see how much I knew about cheese. She booted up her laptop and used an overhead projector for her slick, polished presentation as she guided me through some of the main cheese varieties. I now understand the different production processes for Gouda, Manchego, Cheddar and Parmesan, which make each type distinctive. But there’s more colour to Rosa’s interactive session. She also shares the folklore and traditional stories surrounding those different cheeses. She’s visited many cheese making areas and shares anecdotes from each region, too. And I can sense her excitement over a forthcoming trip to France.

“I’m going to Roquefort and I’m going to visit the caves,” she says, as she recounts how this runny blue cheese was discovered by sheer accident when a young lad found some discarded lunch that he had left underground, apparently after being distracted by a beautiful girl.

I love cheese and eat it regularly but I am ashamed to admit that I know very little about it. If you don’t know the difference between Brie and Camembert, you need to enrol for a session with Rosa at Casa Lila.

After thirty minutes of fascinating cheese facts that I’m determined to remember and repeat at the next dinner party I attend, we stroll a few feet to Rosa’s kitchen where it is time to actually make some soft cheese. And, once made, you can take your culinary creation back with you. “Cruise ship passengers love sharing what they have made when they go back on board,” Rosa says.

And Rosa is full of tips and advice on how to recreate farmers’ market-quality cheese within the confines of your own home. She shows me a professional press, which she imported from Denmark. It retails for $100. Rosa then reveals how you can use items that you’ll find in your own home to reach the same result for smaller production batches.

After cheesemaking, there’s time for a quick tour of Rosa’s beautifully restored 300-year old town house. And this is another highlight of my visit. An experience few visitors enjoy. The three-story Casa Lila is in the most historic part of San Juan, overlooking the UNESCO registered San Cristobal fort. The ground floor living and dining space has high ceilings, designed to cool the air and gorgeous dark wood beams. “They are made from ausubo wood. The tree still grows in the Puerto Rican rainforest but the Spanish cut down most of the forests to export,” says Rosa. The wood is tough. “You can hardly get a nail in it,” she adds.

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Most of the interior walls are covered in a limestone-based plaster. It’s painted in a cooling pale green colour. Some has been stripped away on the arch leading to the open plan kitchen, revealing small, ancient orange bricks. There’s some kudos in finding old brickwork in Puerto Rico. Rosa says its discovery was a ‘happy accident’. Workman repairing an air conditioner leak found bricks under the plaster and excitedly called her. She asked them to expose the underlying structure. It adds to the sense of history in this solid, well-built home.

You couldn’t replicate this house today. The floor is Puerto Rican marble and that’s hard to source. A steep, spiral metal staircase leads to the next two floors, a common feature used to maximise space. The loud clanking noise as we tread the high, iron steps echoes through the house. There’s no way that a partying teenager can sneak up to bed when returning late after curfew in this house! Everyone would hear.

And on the top floor, a roof terrace looks out across the Atlantic. The ocean is much bluer than it looks in Britain. And it starts 400ft from Rosa’s home, adjacent to the thick, pink-hued stone city wall, which was built to safeguard the citadel. “I love watching ships pass by,” says Rosa. There’s a massive geological fault a few hundred feet from here and the ocean floor falls away rapidly. It means that massive boats can pass close to shore. You could easily pass an hour or four watching the boats go by in the cooling breeze.

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And gazing down, I comment on a feature that Rosa’s house shares with most old San Juan city homes. There’s an enclosed patio. “There’s a tunnel under that somewhere too,” says Rosa. Most of the old houses in the city have underground passages, which offered an escape route if the walled city lay under siege by the Dutch, Spanish or British.

“It’s very exciting when people find them. You have to tell the government archaeologists,” explains Rosa. Her next-door neighbour’s home is currently being renovated and Rosa hopes that his tunnel will be found too. That will pinpoint the entry to her long-lost passageway. Some homeowners have blocked them off but there are still tunnels being used as wine cellars. You can see them at the forts and dine in one at Rosa de Triana, a restaurant on Caleta de San Juan. I asked Rosa what she will do with her tunnel if it is found. “It’ll become a cheese ripening cave,” she laughs.

Rosa Avalo is available for group and private cheese making workshops, starting most days at 12 noon. You can contact Rosa through her website at www.casalilapr.com.

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