Dear Family and Friends,
Last week, I drove to Araxá with Bruno Cabral (owner of Mestre Queijeiro, a specialty cheese shop in São Paulo) to judge at the 10th annual Concurso Regional de Queijo Minas Artesanal Araxá. I was honored to partake in this competition (in front of a live audience and television crews, no less) because it was an opportunity to both deepen my knowledge of Brazilian cheese and build on my experience from the World Cheese Awards, the South African Dairy Championships, and Norgesmesterskap (Norway’s national dairy competition).
Over the course of three hours, I worked alongside four other judges (including Bruno) to analyze thirteen different cheeses based on their appearance, texture, and flavor. Cheese from Araxá is pleasantly sour, creamy, and delicious but I was most struck by the farmers and their families watching us work. Many, leaning forward in their chairs, bore intense expressions and their body language communicated to me the importance of cheese (and, by extension, my critique) to their way-of-life.
When I voiced my observation to staff from EMATER (a rural development agency in Minas who organized the competition), I received some interesting contextual information. In Minas, the state where Araxá is located, over 3o,000 people make cheese; many of whom are continuing in the footsteps of their ancestors, the first Portuguese colonists, who brought their cheesemaking knowledge to Brazil over 300 years ago. Couple this with the fact that cheesemakers in Araxá are facing increased pressure to either modernize or go out of business and you have a situation where cheese awards bear ever great cultural, social, and economic significance.
The Queijaria Cruzeiro, a farm Bruno and I visited after the competition, brought to life the integral ties between cheese and identity in Minas. As we chatted with the owner, Wellington Vieira, over coffee and cheese, I learned that cheesemaking in the Vieira family goes back generations. It is nonetheless difficult to make a living selling cheese in Brazil, which is why, several years ago, Wellington moved to São Paulo to work for a trucking company. But he was not happy, he said, and soon came back to the farm. Even though this move meant sometimes driving over 100 kilometers to sell just 10 kilos of cheese, Wellington explained that he “did not know what else to do.” As Wellington’s 11-year-old son, João, ran around snapping pictures of us (just as delighted as we were to be there), Wellington explained he was able to invest in modern equipment using some inheritance money and that he believes João will one day continue the family tradition.
Bruno and I arrived back in São Paulo on Saturday. It has been a lively weekend here as Brazilians vote to impeach their president and I prepare for a few more project meetings.