Dear Family and Friends,
Guilherme is a fun-loving, tattooed Brazilian who made it his mission to teach me as much as possible about Canastra cheese. He is 29-years-old, sells his cheese to Alex Atala (Brazil’s no. 1 chef whose restaurant, D.O.M., is currently ranked as the 9th best restaurant in the world by S. Pellegrino’s “World´s 50 Best Restaurants,”) and jokingly refers to himself as the “playboy” of Canastra for his social networking skills that are bridging the gap between the region’s small farmers and urban markets.
Last week, we embarked on a marathon of dairy visits. Over the course of three days, we met 12 cheesemakers, conducted interviews and toured each farm; fueling up (thankfully) on copious amounts of coffee and cheese along the way. Hopping in and out of his bright yellow “banana” truck, bumping our way from farm to farm along steep, dirt roads, I found myself transported back to an era when the world was smaller and more isolated. Most of the farmers Guilherme introduced me to support their families with only 10-15 cows, sell minute quantities of cheese (by U.S. standards, that is) and live without many modern conveniences, such as internet or refrigeration.
My reasons for seeking out Canastra cheese were two fold. I wanted to better understand how Portuguese colonists adapted their cheese-making knowledge to Brazil and I hoped to engage in conversation with producers about the value of protecting their 300-year-0ld cheese in spite of adversity. In Brazil, around seventy percent of artisan cheesemakers do not have the legal right to sell their cheese and, in the past decade alone, the number of Canastra producers has declined rapidly from 2,000 to 700.
With these depressing figures in mind, I expected to see abandoned farms and unhappy farmers. But instead I found a more positive image. Canastra cheese, perhaps like its people, is simple and rustic, qualities that I believe have so-far aided producers (those remaining, at least) to resist harsh Brazilian legislation. I am concerned that Canastra farmers may not see the value (as I do) in upholding their cheese but João Carlos Leite, President of the Canastra Cheesemakers Association, reminded me that Canastra is in a period of great transition. Even though many farmers have folded, many are finding strength in their newly formed cooperative, looking to renovate their dairies and applying for agricultural credit. Many are also– get this– enrolling their children in a school that focuses on cheese to teach students entrepreneurship, financial literacy, and cooperation. As João and I walked around the courtyard together, pausing to peek in on some classrooms, he added, “Canastra cheesemakers are stronger now than they once were.”
I arrived back in São Paulo last weekend (decked out in Canastra souvenirs– thank you, Guilherme) and am currently gearing up for another busy week. Over the next few days, I will interview Marco Braga (a lawyer specialized in dairy legislation), broaden my knowledge of artisan cheese in this country with the help of Luciana Oliviera (owner of A Queijaria— one of the city’s top cheese shops), and judge at a Brazilian cheese competition in Araxà.
Lots of love,