What’s shiny, red, and almost always bound to make an appearance around the holiday season? Not Rudolph’s nose, but queso de bola: a cheese hailing from Holland, where it is known as Edam (named after its city of origin). Compared to Edam in Holland however, queso de bola as it is imported to the Philippines is often made to be saltier and firmer to survive the long travel and to cater to local taste preferences. The resulting cheese has a goodness in its own respect, appealing in its characteristic crumbliness and saltiness that has lands it a spot across numerous Filipino noche buena spreads year after year—plain, with hamon, or as a topping for ensaymada.
While there are a couple of brands of cheese purporting to be queso de bola are available—some of which are of the processed cheese type—many agree that the real battle is between two brands in particular: Marca Piña and Marca Pato. Both brands offer natural-cheese queso de bola imported from Holland and have been around in the country for many years. Both are iconic enough that they are recognized almost immediately by Filipinos across the world, with many holding strong opinions on which one is their top pick. But how do these two differ, and which one proves to be our favorite?
Note: cheeses were sampled at room temperature, as is believed to be proper, noting taste, texture, and aroma. To ensure maximum fairness, we tried our best to judge each cheese objectively without referring to the factor of personal biases or nostalgia (myth of complete objectivity aside). And while we’re no connoisseurs, we also familiarized ourselves with the taste of “regular” imported Edam (not meant to be queso de bola nor specifically marketed toward the Philippines)—both the unaged and aged versions, available at delis (e.g. Terry’s Selection) and at supermarkets—as a reference point.
Marca Piña’s wax coating feels oddly greasy, but within lies a cheese with a buttery, pale-yellow hue, offering a thicker rind of a darker shade that contrasts beautifully with the interior. Leaning toward the “hard cheese” category, it has a very firm but crumbly texture evident in how it chips off into flakes and dust as you slice through the wheel, and the “powdery” way it dissolves when a piece is placed on the tongue. Our noses are quickly hit with an aroma that’s strong and borderline-stinky (in a good way), mostly consisting of savory and nutty qualities with a hint of sweetness. The flavors unfold in a similar sequence: taking over as you put it in the mouth is a an fervent dose of saltiness and umami (of an intensity and depth characteristic of aged cheese, albeit even stronger than what you’d find in imported aged Edam, even reminding tasters of fish sauce). Next comes the characteristic nuttiness of Edam, though you’ll notice there to be less of the original’s slight fruity tang (rather, you get a strong, savory pungency that brings to mind mushrooms, garlic, and onions). Concluding the bite and bringing balance to the previous flavor wave is the sweet embrace of caramelized milk that gradually works its way through and lingers long after you swallow.
With a dryer coat of red wax, Marca Pato feels to hold as you slice, and inside you’ll find a cheese of the same general pale-yellow shade but with a more uniform hue throughout from having a thinner rind. Though still ultimately a hard cheese, it feels creamier than Marca Piña’s, being easier to slice through without crumbling down as much, and blanketing the tongue with a relative butteriness before proceeding to reveal its crumbly core. As you sniff it lets out a generally similar aroma of saltiness and nuttiness with a hint of caramel-like sweetness, but with a stronger buttery note, and which feels less intense (albeit still strong)t). Taste-wise, its overall level of saltiness comes a notch lower than Marca Piña’s, but it also takes on a simpler, more streamlined flavor profile that emphasizes the dimension of saltiness, compared to Piña’s more complex bouquet. It mostly delivers Edam’s savory nuttiness with the saltiness up a notch (and less tanginess)—much like Marca Piña, but with less of the said brand’s pungent, mushroom-y depth—before bringing in the caramelized-milk sweetness and dairy notes which don’t linger as long, but (given the lesser saltiness) are better able to shine through.
The Verdict: Marca Piña
While Pato and Piña are, at their core, of the same species of cheese with generally similar tastes, they also offer distinctive qualities that give each one their own rightful advantage. Marca Pato’s simpler, less-intense but more saltiness-focused version makes it easy to love, and its relatively creamier texture makes it a pleasure to melt on the tongue. We get how its subdued approach carries its own appeal for those who find the other brand overwhelmingly dry or salty. In so far as the very qualities that make queso de bola a unique cheese are concerned, however, Marca Piña’s deeper complexity in flavor (beyond the increased saltiness—which allows it to stand out better when used in cooking), higher level of crumbliness (one of queso de bola’s defining quirks, we feel), and long-lasting aftertaste (which makes it addictive enough for straight up nibbling) makes this classic brand the champion cheese for us.