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Traditions Hidden in Secrecy


The problems facing Brazil's raw-milk cheeses


Upon hearing that Brazil has its very own cheese-making tradition, plenty of European (and even Brazilian) connoisseurs turn up their noses suspiciously. And yet the art of cheesemaking has been passed down for generations in this tropical country, better known for samba, bossa nova and carnival.


The first cheeses made in Brazil, back when it was still a colony, were inspired by those of the Serra da Estrela in Portugal. The Portuguese who travelled to the centre of the country in search of gold and precious stones found another treasure: a mountainous environment, rich in grasses and other plants that gave cow's milk a rich, full flavor, ideal for cheese production. These days, the dairy-producing regions are mostly in the south (known for Serrano and colonial cheeses), the southeast (Minas Artesanal) and the northeast (Coalho and other dairy products like manteiga-de-garrafa, "butter-in-a-bottle", similar to ghee).


All of these cheeses have something in common: the use of raw cow's milk. Different production techniques and local environmental characteristics are what give the cheeses their different qualities. Despite this widespread tradition, however, Brazilian consumers know little about the excellent cheeses of their own country. Much of the blame lies with a law passed in 1952 to regulate the production of foods of animal origin that ignored the differences between large- and small-scale producers, creating rules not suited to the latter. Additionally, raw-milk cheeses could only be sold in the area where they were produced.


Around 20 million people live in the state of Minas Gerais, which covers 586 square kilometers and lies north of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. The state's 30,000 dairies produce around 70,000 tons of cheese every year. Four regions in Minas are known for artisanal cheesemaking: Serro, Alto Parnaíba, Serra da Canastra and Araxá. Here, life is centered around cheesemaking, which plays an essential role at an economic and social level. Luciano Carvalho Machado, 48, makes Serra da Canastra. It's hardly worth asking him when he decided to become a cheesemaker: "I grew up alongside my grandparents, who made cheese every day, and by the time I realized I wanted to make cheese too, I was already doing it." His daughter, aged 16, helps him to make around 15 kilos of cheese every day. Rennet is added to the fresh milk, then pingo ("drip"), the whey collected from the previous batch, rich in microorganisms that contribute to the final cheese's individual identity. The curds are placed in round molds and pressed by hand, then sprinkled with coarse salt and left to drain for 24 hours. The whey that drips out is collected to be used for the next batch. After being extracted from their molds, the cheeses are stored in aging rooms for at least 22 days. The final cheese has a yellow rind and a straw-yellow interior with a semi-soft consistency, almost buttery. The longer the cheese is aged, the more it develops an intense grassy flavor that evokes the Canastra fields. Luciano is one of only two remaining producers of Canastra Real, made in forms weighing 6 or 7 kilos, instead of the traditional kilo. In the past the huge cheeses were made exclusively for offering to authorities and church figures.


In 2008, artisanal cheese from Minas Gerais was recognized as an intangible heritage of Brazil by the Instituto do Patrimônio Histórico e Artístico Nacional (IPHAN), under the aegis of the Ministry for Culture. Finally the importance of cheesemaking in Minas Gerais was officially recognized, providing the motivation to keep the tradition alive. Yet despite the recognition, Minas Gerais artisanal cheese was still at risk of disappearing: selling it outside the state's borders was a serious breach of the law. So what was good for Minas Gerais was not good for the rest of the country? Did only the Mineiros have the right to know and appreciate this national heritage?


This controversial situation led to the formation of an illegal market of traders who would fill their cars with raw-milk cheeses under the cover of darkness, then travel through the night on unpaved roads, dodging police checks, to reach the São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro markets early the next morning. With a similar determination, the producers of Minas Gerais began a long fight for the legal recognition of their work at a national level. With the support of governmental and non-governmental organizations, a lengthy debate was started with state government representatives. Slow Food participated in this debate, creating a multidisciplinary work group for Brazilian artisanal cheeses with the aim of raising awareness among the population about the social and political power consumers can wield through the simple action of buying these products on a regular basis. 


Luckily, the struggles of Luciano and many other producers seem to have had a happy ending. In 2013, the regulation allowing the sale of raw-milk cheeses, which to date had only been valid in Minas Gerais, was recognized at a national level. Now marketing artisanal cheese from Minas can no longer be considered illegal in the rest of the country. We hope that this opening will allow many of Brazil's other raw-milk cheeses, currently hidden in secrecy and smuggled on the black market, to be recognized and appreciated as part of the country's heritage.


Mariana Guimarães Weiler

The complete article was published in Slow III, September 2013 (in Italian only)


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