Agroecological cheeses: a factory run by women that supplies large restaurants and continues to grow

23 Jul 2022

From their farm in Brandsen, Consuelo Maffía, her mother and sisters honor a heritage of more than six decades in the dairy industry.

Achieving notoriety and recognition is not something usual. And less in only two years of existence. Among the many factors to achieve this is the random (a stroke of luck) or the concrete (offering exceptional products or services). In the case of El Abascay, the cheese factory run by Rosario López Seco and her daughters Consuelo, Lucía and Romina Maffía from the Brandsen field that Rosario has owned since the early 2000s, the latter clearly prevailed.

“You called me just today, that we have the final inspection to give us the organic certification,” laughs Consuelo, Rosario’s right-hand man, sitting behind the wheel of her truck while she contemplates the field where the Holando and Jersey cows are scattered, giving the raw material for the production of El Abascay products.

She is enthusiastic and does not hide it: “We already have the agroecological certification, but the organic one has been in the process for about two years. In fact we are already organic producers, but this means that we can put the label on the products”.

More than 60 years of history

The history of El Abascay (also from the fields and dairy farms that are its origin) began in the 1950s, when Mario, Rosario’s father and Consuelo’s grandfather, began the activity. The man came to have 2,000 hectares, 6 dairy farms, a dairy product factory and 10 children.

When he died in 1991, that factory had been closed for decades, but the dairies were active since after the bankruptcy of his venture he continued to sell milk to the big names in the industry. After his death, some of the sons continued to work the tambos and others opened, but the family business continued to function.

“My mom has been working for more than 20 years. She had another activity and later joined. Later, each one became independent until she was left alone”, Consuelo narrates. “The original field was parceled out and my mother got 160 hectares and a dairy, because in reality when they divided it it was into productive plots, some with more or less hectares, but taking into account the quality of the field. Now we have those 160 and we rent another 180 from an aunt, which are productive for the dairy”.

“I joined 4 years ago. We are three sisters, none had been close, each one made her life; In fact, I went to Buenos Aires for several years to study Human Resources. I also worked in gastronomy. I said that I was never going to work with my family because I saw my mother suffer with the fields and with her brothers. I wanted something else for my life, but now I am very happy”, she says, convinced.

Consuelo says that the animals graze every day in the field and her nutrition plan is completed with organic balanced food. “Today we have 160 cows, but we got to 200, 220,” he details. “Everything for dairy farming; the only parallel activity we have is a chicken coop, with free-roaming chickens that also graze daily and produce eggs; At night they sleep in the chicken coop, but mostly for security reasons. That is our philosophy,” he adds.

Failed deal, opportunity found

The fortuitous also played its role in this story. In August 2020, when the procedures for organic certification began, Rosario and Consuelo began to have conversations with a giant dairy company that their grandfather had historically sold to.

“They already bought our milk and one day they told us that they want to launch a line of organic products. At that time it was good because they paid us a higher value for being agroecological milk. After thinking about it, we said yes because we had nothing to lose and there was also the support of this company”.

“Obviously it was quite a challenge, think that my mother had been working with the same system as my grandfather: she sold to the truck that passed by lifting milk from different dairy farms. And when that proposal came, we already came with the preparation of cheeses, but twice a week, we still did not have anything very well prepared. Just a small delivery truck, everything very precarious. And we didn’t have the money to make a big investment either, it was all very lung, making small productions, trying out.”

But the illusion did not last long. “They told us to start, that the contract was already in place, and after a couple of months of embarking, they told us that the company was getting out of the project and that they were going to continue buying milk from us, but at the conventional price. Obviously, since the costs are much higher, it was useless for us to give them our work. We asked them to continue paying us the agreed value for 6 months, so that we could accommodate ourselves, and in record time we requested a loan from Banco Nación in order to buy a large van to transport the refrigerated products”.

“Then we had to set up a chamber for fresh cheeses and another for maturing, we hired people to be able to sell the milk and to place all the production, which was a great challenge because we produce 3,000 liters a day. So in those first months we had to accommodate ourselves as we could and already in July 2021 we began to process all the milk for our cheeses”.

– That is to say that misfortune was finally an impulse.

– Absolutely. One day my mom sends me a message and says: “I have bad news”. I guessed it was that the company had gone down. At one point that prompted us to take the step of leaving. Until that moment the production was small, for a few clients. At first the two of us made it alone, I loaded the truck and went to Buenos Aires to deliver to the three clients we had, an amount that for me at that time was a lot. We started making cream cheese, and then Campeche, a semi-hard cheese that we named in homage to my uncle, my mother’s brother, who is also an agronomist and always helped us and was present, a close companion to my mother. We started with those two and then we incorporated.

– And how did you learn to make?

– My mother and her brothers had a factory, which also melted down (she laughs). Now she is in sales and the administrative part more than in production, but she had some idea. And then I took a course here, in Brandsen, quite basic, with a local cheesemaker. And then it was a lot of trial and error. A tractor driver who worked with us added some knowledge, so between the tractor driver, my mother and I started.

When the agreement fell through, we had already increased production a bit. Hard cheeses came a little later due to maturation, at first we sold them fresh because we didn’t have the space to make them and also because we didn’t have financial backing: having a cheese stored for two months is money that has stopped. Once we find the balance we begin to incorporate other things.

And now we have a lot of products: we make halloumi, butter (which was born medium by accident and is now a success), Campeche, gouda, sardo, sbrinz, some flavored cheeses, tybo, skimmed port salut; our idea was always to make the cheeses we eat at home. Argentine cheeses, but well done. We also make a dulce de leche that we are proud of, a product that I wanted to make since we started. The difference with other milk sweets is made by the quality of the milk, the use of organic sugar, which is much less sweet than refined sugar, and the fact that we don’t add vanilla, which for me dulls the flavor of the milk.

Family scale

Consuelo outlines the structure of the company, which inevitably is also that of a family dedicated to El Abascay. “My sisters are one year older than me, I am 34, and they are twins. Lucía has a separate job, but she joined the chicken coop project. She started it up during the pandemic with Fede, her husband, who also works in the factory with us. And my other sister, Josefina, who is a nutritionist, participates more than anything with me, putting together orders, invoicing, etc. In total at the factory we are now 17/18 people, most of them from the area. And the master cheesemaker is Ángel, from Brandsen, who started working with us three years ago.

– And how is the distribution of tasks?

– I am in the commercial part and my mother is more in the productive part of the field, it is like her main activity. It is also in the making. There are 6 people working in the factory but she goes every day. I was 100% in the factory and then I ran away, now I dedicate myself more than anything to the commercial part, and I am there when we do tests or product development, I love it. Let’s say that from the product onwards it’s me.

– Because they were recently on the market, they achieved remarkable recognition, especially among chefs. How did they become known?

– I started writing to people, cheeky. One of the first was Julio Baez, Julia’s chef/owner, because I had worked with him a few years ago. I told him about the project and if I could bring him some samples. He said yes and immediately started buying the butter. In addition, he uses our cream, and many people began to write to us because they had tried it on Julia. The journalist Rodolfo Reich also helped us a lot with dissemination. And then word of mouth arrived, they began to buy and recommend other chefs and that’s how we grew.

Consuelo provides production, sales and product availability data: “Roughly speaking, we will be selling 10,000 kilos of cheese per month. The presentations are in 3 kilos last and portions of 300 and 500 grams. We have an online store for retail sales and several points of sale, mostly agroecological stores and natural stores. And in restaurants we are in Julia, Chuí, 878, Los Galgos, La Fuerza, La favorita, Yiyo el Zeneize and several more”.

He also talks about projects, some advanced and others under development. Among these is the elaboration of a cheese with artichoke rennet, which they would carry out together with the University of La Plata (until now they work with microbial rennet and freeze-dried ferment). And it comes in handy —it’s already in the final testing stage— a “porteño quartirolo”, a project carried out jointly with Julián Díaz, owner of 878, Los Galgos and La Fuerza. “It is a cheese with starch and added cream. The idea is that it can be eaten in a savory dish and in a dessert. The cuartirolo as it was done before ”, is excited about the future Consuelo.

– The last one, why are they called El Abascay?

– Because Abascay is the name of the stream that crosses the field where my mother started. Later he moved to the dairy and the name stuck. It also describes the concept a bit: a project that started years ago and continues on its way. The idea is that: to continue growing and transforming. Between my sisters, my mother and I, it’s like we managed to gradually transform something that already had a structure into a project with other horizons and values.

Source: El Planeta Urbano

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