Reprinted from my June column in the Cheese Reporter
On the 11th 12th and 13th of June this year something remarkable happened. 30 small family cheesemakers hid cheese and their suitcases and traveled to France to enter them in the third Mondial du Fromage in France. Fully one-third of these producers walked away with medals, including the highest honor a cheese can win in the world, a super gold.
In itself, this would be remarkable but is even more so when you consider that every single one of them would be considered to be breaking the law had the government of Brazil discovered what they were doing. Rather than go into a long academic discussion about why this makes no sense, listen to Marly Leite , the winner of the g super gold tell it, in her own words:
IN HER OWN WORDS
“In the 1950s my grandparents moved to the region of Araxá from the Serra de Canastra to start their farm, Fazenda Caxambu. They brought with them a recipe for Artisanal Minas cheese handed down to them by their parents in and oral tradition that has lasted close to 300 years, part of the cultural patrimony of Brazil, and began to make it. Because it was a different region the cheese came out differently. Since Artisanal Minas Cheese (QMA) is made from raw milk and natural whey starter, it directly reflects the terroir of the micro region in which it is made s.
When I and my husband decided to try our hands at the selling of cheese, in 1992 when we got married, we had a few complications. Despite having inherited this wonderful tradition, we had no cows. So we sold the cheeses of other producers in the region. We were the dreaded middlemen. We would collect these cheeses and take them to other cities.
Until very recently the sale of cheeses made with raw milk from small producers was illegal in Brazil. Ironically, tons of cheese made from raw milk was and is sold clandestinely. Since the product we sold was a clandestine product we transported it very late in the night, just before sunrise, to avoid being caught. But after five years, the authorities got us, taking all our cheese away from us and burying it, a total loss. We were desperate, because like so many others who lived in the countryside, this was our way of putting bread on the table for our children. This was the money with which we paid for our lives, because living in the countryside in Brazil, leaves few other options.
My husband and I were already making cheese at this point, in small quantities. So we decided to try to get it legalized. This was very difficult to do in 1998, especially because no one in the family was a lawyer and we didn’t know what we needed to do. At the time there was no easy access to the Internet.
So we went to our local rural development office in the town of Sacramento where we live, and they told us that if we wanted to make our cheese, which is traditionally aged 18 days, we would have to pasteurize the milk. We couldn’t understand how it was possible that there was no way to legalize this wonderful cheese we made so full of flavor, without having to take the flavor out of it, traditional cheese that has been made in our state for centuries, long before the introduction of pasteurization and industrial cheesemaking.
REJECTED, DEJECTED BUT NEVER GIVING UP...
We went away deeply saddened. We wanted to make something wonderful and it seemed there was no way we could be allowed to make it. We didn’t know, at the time, that there was a law passed in 1954 with which cheeses like ours could be commercialized in the state of Minas Gerais, and the authorities didn’t tell us, until one wonderful day a friend of ours brought someone from the rural development office from another city, who brought a copy of the law.
With our hope rekindled we entered into a fight for our right to survive making traditional cheese in the manner it has been made for almost 3 centuries, and it is been a fight without end. Though we didn’t have the support of our local municipality, and the local rural development office refused to help we were able to win the support of the local rural development office in the town Araxá. They had a deputy who wanted to send a team in order to organize that traditional cheeses of Minas Gerais could once again be sold legally.
AND THEN, SOMETHING GOOD...
Thanks to their support we were able to get an IMA certification in 2006(the Farming Institute of the State of Minas Gerais.) We were so proud, we like to say to everyone that before we won our certification, we were clandestine and were a little primitive in how we did things, but after the rural development office of Araxá appeared in our lives, we learned to do things better. So we proudly talk of our lives before IMA and after.
It was an important thing to our lives, approved the quality of our lives, finally, we could put our product into the supermarket with pride but we faced a further challenge, being legitimate, our costs were higher, so it was difficult to compete with cheeses that were still being made clandestinely. The consumers seemed to want only the lowest price, according to the markets, but we managed to win, slowly but surely, as is the Mineiro Way (someone who lives in Minas Gerais). When people tried our cheeses they loved them, and when we explained our good agricultural practices and high levels of sanitation, they bought them and this was very gratifying.
Here on our farm we always did only a traditional cure in the way that our grandfather had taught us, and the way that had been passed from generation to generation. and then we heard about a course that a nongovernmental organization, SertaoBras was giving on aging cheeses. They brought a French professor named Delphine to teach us how to apply techniques of maturation. I took this course. Afterwards, I had a lot of ideas I want to tr I was surprised that using the same cheese that we had been making for generations and aging it differently we would come up with completely different kinds of cheeses. I fell in love with this.
This was in 2016. The woman organized the class, Débora Perreira then organized a trip for producers to go to the Mundials in Tour in June of 2017, with help from organizations like FAEMG. I decided to go as an extension of the training that had gotten in the class with Delphine, but there was a problem: to be able to transport a cheese out of Brazil legally, you need a special authorization, but there is no such authorization for cheeses like mine. Full of fear of being caught, I wrapped up my cheese and stuffed it into my suitcase, We got on line at the airport terrified that our cheeses would be confiscated. But they weren’t. And when we arrived in France, this alone to us was a major victory.
Various producers of Brazilian cheese had smuggled their cheeses out of Brazil where they are treated like drug traffickers, and we went on to win 12 medals. When they posted the results I was working downstairs at our table talking about Brazilian cheese. My cousin came to me and said “I have good news. You have won a gold, and a super gold for your cheese Senzala.” This was an extraordinary feeling.
I am hopeful this incredible conquest by Brazilian cheesemakers will come to the attention of government officials, and they will start to attend to the necessities of the small producer who are currently imprisoned by laws that make it almost impossible for the producer to survive without making a clandestine cheese, an illegal cheese, despite using good practices of quality and aging, and having centuries of tradition. There is no justification for this. Scientific studies have shown repeatedly that in our region achieves only has to be aged for 18 days to be safe when made with raw milk just like the old timers have done for centuries.
As long as we make safe food we should be able to make what we want...
Perhaps someone might think that my cheese, Senzala, that won the highest title in the world of cheese simply doesn’t taste as good as another cheese made according to the “official” standards of identity, and that’s fine, but as long as we make safe food we should be able to make what we want, how we want to make it, and be able to sell it legally rather than hiding them in our suitcases or traveling in the middle of the night in order to survive.
And it is my hope that the next competition in 2019 that our Brazilian cheeses that were so honored outside of Brazil will be allowed to enter this competition with the full support of the Brazilian people. It’s my hope that our government will feel proud for us, hard-working people, rural survivors who have suffered under repression and still had the ideas and creativity to make cheese considered among the best in the world.
Producers in Brazil, at risk and in clandestine situations, because they try to produce traditional cheese with raw milk, should never have to experience what we did, our chests filled with fear of our cheeses being confiscated and thrown away when leaving Brazil, in order to compete and win in international competitions, I hope that our achievements will be glorified, and in 2019 our cheeses will be legalized.”
Wow, I can only imagine 50 years ago, when mass production and unscientific laws almost completely destroyed small family farmhouse cheese producers in the US, that someone felt emotions very much the same. As in its report on world agriculture in 2009s the UN noted, The rules that apply to mass production do not apply to Artisanal, and are too costly for small producers to survive. We need to focus on good process and a less antagonistic more collaborative approach to food safety.