I love cheese. I suppose it’s a weakness of mine (if it weren’t for cheese I’d probably have the body of an Olympic swimmer), but when something tastes so creamy, delicious and interesting, how can it be a bad?
Growing up in England, I was rather spoiled when it came to cheese. Not only were there all those excellent British cheeses (Cheddar, Stilton, Blue Wensleydale, etc), but the great cheeses of France were easily available too.
What I found during my travels around this continent is that although people ate a lot of queso / queijo (Spanish / Portuguese) in empanadas, sandwiches, joelhos, arepas, etc, the type of cheese was rarely highlighted. It was just generic ‘cheese’. I’m sure more knowledgeable readers can tell me about all the fantastic South American cheeses that I’ve missed out on, but in my experience, cheese was mostly used as a tasty though unsophisticated filling alongside jamon / presunto (ham), rather than eaten for its own sake.
That being said, I’m happy to be able to report that Brazil has several excellent cheeses. My two favourites are both from the state of Minas Gerais.
This was the first cheese I was introduced to in Brazil and I’ll admit that I wasn’t immediately convinced. Frescal (a word connected to fresco – “fresh”) is well named – the process of changing it from milk to cheese takes just 4-10 days and the result is a very fresh, clean tasting cheese. The flavour is subtle and at first I didn’t really ‘get’ it – I thought it was entirely tasteless. Nowadays I’d say that a good Frescal can hold its own against against any similar style European cheese.
The texture is soft, slightly springy and creamy. It goes deliciously well in a crusty pão francês for breakfast and is also a popular party snack, cut into cubes and drizzled with olive oil.
Queijo Minas comes in 2 other varieties and sadly for me, I only recently realised how different they are. Minas Padrão (Standard Minas) is a rather boring, rubbery cheese that reminds me of that cheap mozzarella you get in blocks. Minas Curado (Cured Minas) on the other hand is a very different animal.
After following a similar production process to Frescal, this cheese is washed and salted and then stored for several weeks. This allows the cheese to develop a richer, slightly sour flavour. A rind forms on the outer surface and the inner cheese becomes firmer and creamier.
If I had a cheese shop (something I’ve dreamed about for years), I would proudly sell both Frescal and Curado alongside the great European cheeses.
The best/worst thing about these delicious cheeses from Minas is that I haven’t even tasted the really good ones yet! There is a law in Brazil that bans the export of unpasteurised cheeses across state lines, meaning that if you want to taste queijo de leite cru (cheese from raw milk), you have to go to Minas itself.
“Legalize-já” (Legalise it now!) is a phrase more commonly associated with the legalise marijuana campaign, but independent cheese makers have been using it to protest at this law which seems to favour large, industrial production techniques and restricts the sale and production of one of Brazil’s culinary treasures.
There has even been a film made about the cheese makers of Minas and their plight. Take a look at this clip – even if you don’t speak Portuguese, it’s worth it for the awesome shots of hands squidging into raw cheese at the beginning!:
That film came out a few years ago and, as far as I know, the law is still in place which seems rather sad. However, as the phrase goes, “If the mountain won’t come to Muhammad…” (I’ll be making a cheese pilgrimage soon!).
I am told that the law has been changed regarding the export of cheeses made from raw milk! …I still want to go on my cheese pilgrimage though…