In Brazil, illegal markets aren’t confined to the usual suspects like guns, drugs or contraband. There is also a sizeable black market in cheeses: not the imported variety, but rather traditional cheeses made from raw milk by thousands of small-scale artisan producers. According to Emater, an organization for technical assistance and rural development, today nearly 40% of all artisanal cheese made countrywide is sold on the black market.
The reason is simple. For more than 50 years an outdated, severe law that was created for the large industrial producers has forced a large part of the small-scale raw-milk cheesemakers to sell their products on the black market. The law stipulates that cheese made from unpasteurized milk, must be aged at least 60 days in order to be sold in other Brazilian states. It also requires that the tables, forms and workbenches used in production be made of stainless steel, instead of the usual wood. For many of the small producers it is too costly to make the necessary changes, but it is not only an economic concern; using stainless steel in place of wood changes both the quality and the flavor of the cheeses.
With the introduction of these modern production rules, traditional knowledge, artisanal methods, and a palate that for centuries has characterized Brazilian food culture are vanishing. Cheesemaking in Brazil has ancient origins. Documents that discuss the production of the first cheeses in the state of Pernambuco, for example, date back to 1597. Today the production of raw-milk cheeses involves thousands of producers and families in various states and regions of the country: from the quejio canastra cheese of Minais Gerais, in the Southeast, to buffalo milk cheese of Marjò island in the state of Parà, to the colonial and Serrano cheeses from the state of Rio Grande do Sul in the extreme south of the country.
In some cases the regulations are contradictory and confusing. In the state of Minas Gerais, for example, a law was introduced to legalize the production and sale of raw-milk cheeses in 2002 However, the producers must still deal with the federal laws that prohibit the sale of their cheeses across state lines.
In 2011 Slow Food Brazil decided to unite officially with producers of artisanal raw-milk cheeses to fight for the protection of this important food heritage. A working group was created with participation from researchers and experts, convivium leaders, committee members of the Ark of Taste, cooks and food lovers from across the country. Together with the Ark of Taste National Commission, the working group had a major role in the organization of the first seminar on the artisanal cheeses of Brazil (a three day conference supported by Embrapa Agroindústria Tropical and Emater held in November 2011 in Fortaleza).
“Raw-milk artisanal cheeses are an important food heritage for Brazil”, wrote Bibi Cintrão and Denise Gonçalves, two members of the working group. “They are produced in different states and regions of the country and involve thousands of small businesses and families whose livelihood and culture depend on this knowledge. We know that there is a lot of resistance and that the question of legalization for these products is not simple. We have our work cut out for us, which is also why we always need more backers”.
In collaboration with local NGOs and other bodies, the groups works to encourage dialogue with universities and local health authorities and to inform and educate consumers through a national network for the defense of artisanal raw milk cheeses. Conferences, events, tastings and markets are being used to promote the environmental, cultural and gastronomic aspects of raw milk production to civil society, and highlight the difficulties faced by producers in the name a disputable concept of food security. Raising awareness about the severe legislations that create a lack of these products in the majority of Brazilian cities is the first fundamental step in taking civil society towards the assertion of their rights to buy the foods of their choice.
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For more information:
Slow Cheese is Slow Food’s international campaign in defense of raw-milk cheeses.
Cheese, Slow Food’s biennial event dedicated to the world of artisan dairy, will be held again this year in Bra, Italy from September 20 to 23. Watch this space.