In the Oxford Companion to Cheese, I wrote about the cheesemaking culture of Brazil, in October 2017, I had a chance to see it up close. A group of cheese-store owners from around the country organized themselves to celebrate the 3rd annual Brazilian cheese competition. The organization Comer Queijo handled the logistics to select and train judges (both aesthetic and technical judges following American standards). The teams were formed by dairy technicians and cheesemongers.
At the beginning of the competition we were introduced to the Brazilian traditional styles by Dr. Michelle Carvalho, who has widely research the cheeses of her country and is a strong advocate for traditional, raw milk, and native cultures. During her presentation, we tasted some of the most iconic cheeses from Brazil. We had time to learn the reasons behind some of the most distinct flavors and stories of this cheeses. Perhaps the one cheese that surprised me the most was Kochkase. This cheese made in southern Brazil in Santa Catariana by descendants of German immigrants is unique because it is like cheese toffee. The cheese starts as a high-acidity fresh cheese that is used to eat for breakfast. It is commercialized in local stores and people only purchase the week’s cheese. Producers keep some of the cheese and after a period (normally a week) the cheese has aired and compacted. At that time, it is heated and the consistency of the cheese changes from crumbly to chewy. This turns it into a toffee texture and the flavor deepens with notes of caramel, but also yeasty cooked dairy. The smell reminds me of the subtle cooked smell of halloumi crust after grilled or melted Chihuahua cheese on the grill for a taco shell.
In thinking of these, I thought of a similar cheese from Yunnan in China, which ferments, airs and dries for a longtime before being deep fried. However, the Brazilian cheese has more humidity as it is not allowed to dry out. You can learn more about the Chinese in this video from Sandor Katz’ trip to China.
This cheese and its history, along with others that I tried last month, like the very commercial requeijão made by Catupiry; which is like a Russian cream cheese, show that the cheese world is deeply interconnected. I am not saying that Brazilian cheesemakers learnt from Chinese or Russian cheese practices. In fact, Brazilian cheese history has been documented in various books, which are now part of the growing collection the Coalition keeps on cheesemaking from around the world. That history traces back to Portuguese and Italian colonizers and settlers, and then to German immigrants. However, traditional techniques are ways to solve issues that arise in many parts of the world, that’s why so many cheeses reflect each other and what differentiates them is the terroir coming from the soil translated into milk by dairy animals. It is in fact this interaction of cheesemaking expertise and terroir (soil, animal breeds, feed, climate conditions, and microbiomes) that promote diversity in cheeses. It is precisely that careful balance that we are championing and protecting here at the Coalition. This gastronomic history that involves the human and the natural (a false dichotomy) is under constant threat. On one side, by technologies that eliminate expertise and outsource knowledge to industrialized processes, and on the other side, simple agriculture that relies on few breeds of animals, limited numbers of feeds and prefers supplements to augment yields, and monocultures promoted by standardized starter cultures and molds.
While it is true that cheesemaking has benefited from new technologies and more reliable sources of milk. It is also a reality, that this push to super industrialization has created problems of its own. Including a massive amount of commodity cheese that has no market, decline in the price of milk, and disruption in natural cycles of animals and pasture lands.
We have a lot to learn from Brazilian cheesemakers and the Coalition is happy to be part of many efforts in that country. We are strengthening alliances there and we know many cheesemongers are ready to celebrate Raw Milk Cheese Appreciation Day on April 21, 2018 to showcase some of their wonderful national cheeses.
You can get a copy of the Oxford Companion to Cheese in this link and your purchase would help the Coalition. Remember that your contributions in the forms of donations or membership support our work in educating more consumers about traditional cheeses.
Carlos Yescas, Oldways Cheese Coalition Program Director
Cover Image: IPO - Beto Shwafaty (2005-17) a piece at the MAM in Sao Paulo.