I can imagine how Roberto Burdese, vice-president of Slow Food Italia, must have felt, when during a visit of various Italian associations and NGOs (Non-Government Organizations) to Brazil, José Graziano da Silva, Brazil’s Special State Minister for Food Safety and the Battle against Hunger, explained to him that the philosophy behind Slow Food’s efforts around the world had helped inspire the government’s ‘Zero Hunger’ project.
The Minister in the new Lula government is a university professor and researcher who, a few years back, published a long article about Slow Food’s various activities. He pointed out on that occasion that our approach to protecting and promoting small-scale traditional local producers was a good example to follow. Countries like Brazil are trying to re-establish policies that support traditional agricultural practices and to focus on food that respects their strong cultural identity. So it’s no coincidence that, the long document describing the ‘Zero Hunger’ project—a key priority in President Lula’s government program—contains a page referring to Slow Food.
It was a historic moment for our small movement on April 29 when, in the presence of President Lula, Roberto Burdese signed an agreement in which Slow Food committed itself to working with the Brazilian government by developing Presidia projects supporting biodiversity and small-scale traditional agriculture.
We are fully committed to raising the funds needed to support these projects through our new Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity. I would like to invite anyone interested in helping to contact us.
Brazil is an enormous country. Most of the population, while not actually starving, suffers malnutrition and is undernourished. Yet, due to the country’s huge size and geographic differences, the model of large-scale intensive agricultural production imported from North America has not completely eliminated traditional agricultural practices and products.
For example, Slow Food representatives were taken to Serro, one of the earliest Portuguese settlements in the Brazilian interior. It is located in the state of Minas Gerais and has surprisingly rich gastronomic traditions. It is still possible to find Queso de Serro, a cheese made from zebu milk, which is counted among the area’s typical products. Until a few decades ago this specialty was only made from raw milk, but today this is mixed with milk from Holstein cattle. Here too pressure is being exerted to standardize cattle breeds. Most producers are obliged by law to pasteurize their milk and the traces of the wholesome original product are being lost. The few producers who continue to make raw milk cheese are running into enormous problems. Pasteurization is being required for reasons of food safety, but it could be possible to get round these hitches, if appropriate strategies were adopted and financial support given to small cheesemakers to make them more secure.
The cheese is no longer aged – although it used to be – simply because it is not economical to age it. Producers have to sell their small quantities as quickly as possible and consumer tastes now prefer fresh industrial cheeses. Producers would definitely find it easier to earn more, if consumers were to rediscover the quality of aged cheeses. All of which emphasizes the need to promote cheese and the gastronomic importance thereof in restaurants in large Brazilian cities.
Despite widespread poverty, there are also many well-off people in the large urban centers. They constitute a potential market that has yet to be tapped by small farmers making traditional products. It is thus essential not only to take action at various levels, but also to support improvements in production methods.
It is for these reasons that I would like to make an appeal. Are there any specialists in cheesemaking or agronomists out there who would be interested in spending six months or a year with these small Brazilian cheesemakers? Your help and experience would be invaluable and I am sure a stay in Brazilwould also be a great learning opportunity, from both a professional and a humanitarian point of view.
Please contact the newly founded University of the Science of Gastronomy at Pollenzo and Colorno ([email protected]), one of whose institutional will be to coordinate knowledge and make it available to small farmers in developing countries.
First published in La Stampa, May 5 2003
Translation by Ronnie Richards