If there’s one artisanal food you probably wouldn’t associate with Brazil, it’s cheese. So you may be surprised to discover that Brazil has a rich, under-exploited heritage of cheese-making. We’re talking interesting cheeses made by small producers from north to south, but which are surprisingly hard to buy in São Paulo. Which is exactly what cheese enthusiast Fernando Oliveira hoped to change when he opened São Paulo’s first shop dedicated to Brazilian cheese – A Queijaria – in April 2013.
The bright corner shop is set in a pretty Vila Madalena house, infused with the ripe scent of maturing cheese – ‘queijo’, in Portuguese. It rose from the ashes of the now defunct Casa da Li restaurant, just a few doors down, where Oliveira sold his cheeses for three months as a test bed to gauge interest. ‘The demand for our cheeses was huge, and that gave us the security to know that the shop would work,’ Oliveira tells us.
The idea had been maturing for some time, and the result is now one of the few options for those looking to buy quality local cheese in the city. ‘Supermarkets have a really weak choice of Brazilian cheeses, and those they do sell have no flavour whatsoever. The wealthier paulistanos buy imported cheeses. The decent Brazilian cheeses simply aren’t available to buy.’
|Shop owner, Fernando Oliveira
Oliveira’s regular cheese-hunting expeditions across the country have stocked his shelves (alongside jams, chorizo and other handmade goodies) with a plethora of wholly artisanal, largely unpasteurised cheeses. Small slabs of slate, marked up with chalk, denote each cheese’s origin, from Minas Gerais to inland São Paulo, Santa Catarina, Rio Grande do Sul and even the North-Eastern state of Pernambuco.
The best-known cheeses hail from Minas Gerais. Take the queijo da Canastra, for example, a hard cow’s-milk cheese from the fertile Serra da Canastra region. The Canastra Real (R$60 per kilo) comes in a big wheel, as mellow as a good Emmental, while the Ze Mário (R$55 per kilo) is smaller – a pale yellow, dense, salty cheese.
Some lesser-known Mineiro varieties to try are the Serra do Salitre (R$30 per 600-800g unit), a salty number not unlike a pecorino, though it’s made from cow’s milk rather than ewe’s milk. The Serrano do Rio Grande do Sul (R$68 per kilo) is a dependable, buttery hard cheese with a hint of the pastures where it is made – up in the mountains of Campos de Cima da Serra in Rio Grande do Sul, which has one of the coldest climates in Brazil.
The real revelations on our visit, however, came in the form of the Campo Redondo (R$48 per kilo), a Mineiro cheese that packs a rounded punch of sweetness, saltiness and creaminess when it’s really young, maturing quickly to become a harder, Parmesan-like cheese when it’s 4-6 months old. And the sublime Suape – a sweet, Emmental-inspired cheese from Pernambuco that’s one of the shop’s priciest (R$80 per kilo).
|The Zé Mario is a dense, salty cheese from Minas Gerais
Soft cheeses seem to be less of a focus, though Oliveira does get some soft cheese deliveries in from time to time, like the Reblochon-like cheese Mangabeira, from Pernambuco (R$80 per kilo), and a strong blue goat’s cheese, Azul do Bosque (R$50 per 300g piece) from Joanópolis in São Paulo state.
Chances are no two visits will meet with the same selection, be it in different varieties of cheese, or the same cheeses that have matured – but that element of surprise is precisely one of the pleasures. Look out, for example, for the cheeses stored in a wood-and-gauze box – they’re unpasteurised cow’s-milk cheeses that are less than 60 days old, which Oliveira cannot sell by law – until they come of legal age, that is.
It’s an antiquated law that dates back to 1952, and Oliveira is hopeful that it may change this year, following a long-running campaign. Not least since – ironically – it contradicts a more recent law protecting the artisanal cheese-making methods in Minas Gerais, as part of Brazil’s cultural heritage.
Oliveira seems happy to talk about cheese for hours. Just make sure he keeps slicing you off tasters while he waxes lyrical.
Prices correct as of July 2013