To see a producer at work and then, at the end of the conference, to be able to taste their freshly made cheese is a rare experience. But that's what occurred at Cheese on Saturday September 19 during the Milk Workshop "Cheeses from the Americas: Raw Milk Productions in Argentina and Brazil".v
Francesca Rocchi, the vice-president of Slow Food Italy, led a journey to discover the artisanal traditions, knowledge and places behind high-quality dairy production in South America. The producers, for their part, expressed all the energy and passion of those who have chosen to dedicate their life to cheese and livestock. Like Guilherme "Capim" Ferreira, a young producer from São Roque de Minas in Brazil, winner of a Slow Cheese Award, or Agustin Battellini, the son of Italian immigrants to Argentina, a former architect who moved to Uruguay 15 years ago to raise 120 sheep on 40 hectares of land and make cheese from their milk.
Their fascinating stories are a sign of hope in the increasingly complicated context of South America, where monocultures and GM crops are colonizing much of the agriculture. "It's not easy," one of the producers said. "GM crops are more profitable and farmers think they don't have alternatives. Spreading the knowledge that it is possible to grow crops, raise livestock and produce food organically and artisanally is essential, and being here today encourages us to continue, as well as helping us to understand how to make our cheese even better."
Similar stories came from two women from the Argentinian province of Tucumán. Maria Antonia Brito and Elizabeth Noemi Medina, producers from the new Slow Food Tucumán Goat's Cheese Presidium, explained how resistance to monocultures and the promotion of traditional products is becoming a key theme in their country, thanks in part to their work.
"Our area is a tourist destination, and tourists look for these traditional products," said Marta Nuñez, an expert with the Presidium. "Our role as experts is to help to communicate the value of these products, to guarantee that they are good quality and to create a network, just as we have done for the new Presidium. The project will help to revive the traditional processing method, improve the quality of the product and promote it on the regional market. This will be done through participation in fairs and events and the involvement of chefs from the Slow Food Chefs' Alliance, who will be encouraged to include the cheeses on their restaurant menus."
Obviously there is no lack of problems, particularly those caused by strict and outdated legislation, designed for big industrial production. According to Argentinian and Brazilian law, raw-milk cheeses must be aged for at least 60 days before being sold, and tables, molds and work surfaces, traditionally made from wood, must be in stainless steel. Small-scale producers can't afford to make the necessary adaptations, but it is not just a financial question: using stainless steel instead of wood, for example, changes the quality of the finished dairy products.
"In Brazil, over 40% of artisanal cheese is sold illegally," explained Debora de Carvalho Pereira of the NGO SertãoBras, which campaigns alongside producers for the legalization of raw-milk dairy products. "There are 30,000 producers around the country, but just 245 are officially registered with the state. It's inevitable, if the legislation doesn't change. We have currently managed to obtain a kind of limbo, so new regulations will be made. But how long will we remain in limbo and continue to sell informally?".
There are many challenges still to be overcome, but the desire to continue the struggle-in Argentina, in Brazil, in Uruguay-seems clear. The value of this struggle was demonstrated at the event, by the images and flavors offered by Debora de Carvalho Pereira, presenting the main cheeses from the Minas Gerais; and by Maria Antonia Brito and Elizabeth Noemi Medina giving a live demonstration of how milk and rennet can be transformed almost magically into a special Italo-Argentinian edition of their fresh goat's cheese. Eric Vassallo brought the event to a close with a fascinating final tasting that offered a window onto the vast South American world of raw milk, leaving those present with no doubt: Cheese is made from milk!