At the turn of the century, in 2001, the producers of Artisan Minas Cheese, the most traditional dairy product of Brazil, were struck by the news: that their centuries-old tradition was threatened with extinction, due to an initiative by a regional Consumers’ Association, demanding its prohibition on account of its absence of certification of origin and quality.
In January 2002, after exhausting negotiations involving local and regional political leaderships, at the initiative of the Regional Cooperative of Rural Producers of Serro, the Artisan Minas Cheese obtained official recognition of its existence, and the State Legislative established hygiene procedures and quality controls to allow it to obtain state certification.
Nevertheless, it was a second initiative, a few months later, which took the boldest step towards the protection of this traditional method of cheese production. The advisory board of curators of The State of Minas Gerais Historical and Artistic Heritage Institute (IEPHA) unanimously approved the first Registered Immaterial Cultural Heritage of Minas Gerais – the Minas Cheese Method. This original initiative triggered major press coverage and raised public awareness of the artisan cheese producer’s struggle.
The state of Minas Gerais was the cradle of the cheese production in Brazil, due to its vocation for the production of milk and its strategic location in relation to major consumer markets in the country. The Minas Cheese has four historically identified territories: Serro, Araxá, Serra do Salitre and Serra da Canastra.
In Brazil, the sector is the most significant in the food industry. In 1999 it showed sales of US$ 7.65 billion, corresponding to 1,4% of the national GNP and 17.5% of the total revenue of the food industry of US$ 50.88 billion. In 2002, official, federally inspected Brazilian cheese production amounted to 375,1 thousand tons. Minas Gerais produced 42% of that total (157,5 thousand tons). These data do not include artisan production. No statistics are available, but it is estimated that, in the area of Serro, the production of Minas Cheese amounted to 5.0 thousand tons and in the adjacent area of Serra do Salitre, close to 7.0 thousand tons, Araxá 10.8 thousand tons and Serra da Canastra, 4.4 thousand tons.
The city of Serro, with its colonial baroque architecture, is located in the area of Alto Jequitinhonha, in the north of the state of Minas Gerais. It was the capital of the district of Serro Frio, initially called Arraial Das Lavras Velhas. The French naturalist August Saint-Hilaire, in his book Travels through the Provinces of Rio De Janeiro and Minas Gerais, published in 1820, has one of the first scientific records of cattle ranching in the district of Serro Frio. It is a mountainous area of approximately 2,000 square kilometers at an altitude 940 m, with average temperatures between 11ºC and 30ºC. In the second half of the 17th century, when explorers looking for gold entered the hinterland of central Brazil, they established the first gold mines in the area, bringing the techniques of cheese production to local communities.
The Minas Cheese evolved based on the Portuguese method of Serra da Estrela Cheese, with a variation of the rennet. The Minas Cheese was prepared by adding rennet developed from the dried and salted stomach of the armadillo. In the origins of this tradition, the only ingredient brought from outside the region was salt. Local carpenters made the cheese molds of local hardwood and the production process took place at rooms (cheese dairies) next or close to the corrals. The production was accumulated for weeks, or even months, before being taken to the local market.
The traditional regional cattle for the production of milk are largely composed of mixed breeds, obtained by crossings Zebus with the first European breeds. Grassland was mostly composed of meloso, a lush local grass. This combination produced a tasty cheese with a higher fat content and a longer maturation period. Today, the meloso is disappearing from the region due to the disturbing criterion of maximum productivity per hectare. This favors other cattle breeds and grassland, but it clauses the loss of the genuine indigenous identity of flavors.
The celebrated Artisan Minas Cheese has a cylindrical form, with an approximate diameter of 14 cm. It is 4 to 6 cm in height, and weighs from 700g to 1kg with 50% fat on the curd and 46% to 54% humidity. Its rind is usually whitish and fine, tending to a harder texture and yellowish color when matured. The cheese presents a semi-hard curd with small, irregular mechanical openings. Its flavor is quite typical and much more acid than the industrial Minas Cheese. This high acidity is also responsible for another exquisite product, Minas Cheese Bread.
The cheese manufactured with raw whole milk uses the whey as a natural starter. Responsible for the cheese’s exclusive taste, it is maintained alive for weeks or even months. The only added ingredient is the powdered or liquid rennet; hence for a long time the natural rennet was made from the stomach of armadillos. After the starter culture, the curd is set on molds and salted by aspersion of thick salt on both surfaces. It then sits for half a day to whey-off, after which it is stocked on shelves in the dairy room. The whey that drains from one day to the next is collected and becomes the next day’s starter.
The singular process of handmade production, the only one amongst the four types to be pressed by hand, continues to be carried out in the area of Serro, mainly in small family properties embedded among rocky hills serviced by rough potholed roads that run through stunning landscapes. Its production area reaches more than 10 districts with over 920 producers, accounting for 76% of small family producers.
Currently, the production of the most traditional cheese of the country is perilously being taken over by dominant international corporations, insensitive to the historical aspects of the tradition and to the genuine quality of the flavor. Furthermore, the use of imported starter adds to the risk of contamination of the local ecosystem, thus endangering autochthonous bacteria.
Celia Ferreira, a researcher at the University of Viçosa currently working on the scientific process of characterization of the Serro Cheese, has succeeded in isolating two groups of bacteria that compose the individual whey of the Minas Cheese, responsible for giving its flavor the singular characteristics of the ecosystem where it is produced. According to Prof. Ferreira, all starters used in the Brazilian dairy industry today are imported, except for the starter derived from whey of raw milk used in Minas Cheese production.
However, the strong common feeling of cultural identity in the Serro community has made possible the survival of this traditional artisan production process, today a nationally recognized brand. Its production is responsible for the subsistence of thousands of people in that region. Lacking other means of revenue, they have been persecuted by technicians and authorities, with arguments based merely on elitist concepts of hygiene and public health that underestimate the high value of this unique asset.
By proposing the opening of the Book of Registration of the Immaterial Cultural Heritage of Minas with the Traditional Method of Production of the Minas Cheese, the State responds to the need of protecting products and techniques against the standardization and mass production processes of the global economy. It is vital to create the means to protect the small producer (local associations are conspicuous by their absence) and defend traditions and cultural identity as a fundamental element in the preservation of biological and cultural diversity.
This historical recognition, acknowledging the cultural aspects of food production, can encourage the creation of a series of national, legal and marketing instruments that could provide a safety net for small entrepreneurs’ and producers’ associations, allowing the survival of quality genuine products and autochthonous techniques, with consequent economical and social development. This initiative takes the matter to a broader social discussion and creates the foundations for the future establishment of instruments of denomination of origin and quality control, such as the DOC appellations in Italy and France.
Homero Vianna is the leader of the Slow Food Belo Horizonte Convivium, a member of the Slow Food Award jury, and events organizer for the Ópera Comunicação agency in Belo Horizonte