100,000 artisanal cheese-makers, 14 types identified (so far) and many young operators in this sector with the enthusiasm and willingness to invest in new techniques. Cheese in Brazil represents a huge and multifaceted activity but, above all, it is a rapidly expanding one. Despite the fact that the Brazilian cheese-making tradition stretches back for centuries, it is only in recent years that a systematic attempt has been made to classify and safeguard this heritage.
This opus magnum is being addressed with determination and patience by the Brazilian Slow Food Work Group on Artisanal Cheese. For an explanation of their work we spoke to Marcelo Podestà, born in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, who lived and studied for many years in Italy before returning home. Minas Gerais, his home state, is the most renowned area for artisanal cheese-making. "Cheese was always part of our diet because my grandfather used to make it. When I arrived in Europe, however, I was amazed by the variety of different cheese specialities, colours and flavours. This experience made me curious to know more about my own country’s cheese and to understand the differences. Which is also a way of getting to know the land itself and the local culture". In 2012, at the Slow Food Salone del Gusto event in Turin, Marcelo met the Grupo de Trabalho and started to collaborate with them.
"We are working on the different types of traditional Brazilian cheese. By traditional, we mean cheese that has been produced in well-defined areas since the arrival of the Europeans with dairy animals. These areas are not many, but very different from each other". With the aid of a map, we make an impartial attempt at tracing these exact areas. The Marajò (the largest fluvial island in the world) is half covered by Amazon rainforest while the other half of its territory is dominated by savannah vegetation: a hot humid climate twelve months a year is ideal for breeding domesticated water buffalo, whose milk is used to make Queijo de Marajó, a fresh cheese that constitutes an exception in Brazil, where most cheese specialities are made from cow’s milk, even though goat’s cheese and marbled varieties are starting to become popular in Rio and in San Paolo."
The north east region, on the other hand, is famous for Coalho, often sold as street food, fried and skewered; creamy Requeijao appears in many recipes; Manteiga is a yellowish cheese with a high fat content and a buttery aftertaste. Minas, which is in fact the major cheese-making area, produces Cabacinha, similar to Italian caciocavallo, but the most well known speciality of all is queijo Minas: made on the serras, mountainous areas with a mild climate, it comprises numerous sub-categories, each one with its own characteristics and peculiarities (Serro, Canastra, Araxà, Salitre, Campo das Vertentes … ). A triumph of craftsmanship that is hard to believe, and which the Grupo de Trabalho sobre Queijos Artesanais highlights with its research work, competitions, promotional activities and events. Their work is part of a broader activity conducted by Slow Food on an international level: to safeguard raw milk cheese varieties against industrial standardization which imposes the use of pasteurized milk.
The Brazilian cheese-making culture started with European immigration. Along with their farming methods and animals, the colonials also brought their dairy traditions and tried to adapt them to the their new homeland. Cows turned out to be the most adaptable animals and much space was given over to breeding cattle, especially when gold – the main economic resource and source of work - started to run out. The more the population spread to inland areas, the more their techniques had to adapt to the climate conditions, so cheese had to be reinvented. Some cheese varieties are rather outrageous copies of European specialities: in the South we find Parmesao de Mantiqueira, inspired Parmigiano, yet smaller and less mature; further south there are Koch Kase, Colonial and Serrano, which are similar to alpine malga cheese. «Brazilians have been seduced by the cheese-making culture» explains Marcelo.
This passion for cheese is reflected in one of the better known Brazilian specialities, the pao de queijo. The recipe? In actual fact, it is very simple without any need to accurately dose the ingredients. Heat 250 ml milk, 125 ml oil, 125 ml water and a teaspoon of salt to boiling point and then add 500 g sweet manioc starch, stir well and leave to cool. Add 2 eggs and 20 grams of any mature cheese of your choice before baking the bread rolls in the oven until they rise and become golden in colour. Enjoy with freshly made coffee and – why not? – accompanied with generous slices of fresh cheese.