Artisanal Araxá cheese has a particular color and taste, a uniform paste, and is free of colorings and preservatives. It is produced with whole, raw cow’s milk (milked and processed on the farm), salt, rennet (usually industrial rennet, in liquid or powder), and milk from the previous days milking called pingo. The consistency ranges from semi-hard to soft and buttery. It has a compact paste with few eyes. Its color is even and milky white. It has a pleasant, acidic taste that is not spicy. It has a thin rind, that is yellowish and without cracking. It is cylindrical in shape, 4-6 cm tall and weighing 1-1.2 kg. Cheeses of other weights and shapes can also be found, as the commercial market and producers’ practices evolve.
After hand or mechanical milking, rennet and pingo is added to the milk. After coagulating for 90 minutes, the mixture is broken and mixed to separate out the whey. The cheese is placed into plastic forms and manually pressed until the whey has been drained. The first surface of the cheese is salted for 6-12 hours. A this point, the pingo is collected, the form is flipped, and salt is spread on the other side. The second day, the cheese is removed from the form and placed on the shelf for aging. During the aging, the cheese is cleaned and the rind raked. Once complete, it is labeled and sold fresh (5-10 days after production) or after complete aging (about 22 days). Among the artisanal cheeses of Minas, Araxá, along with Canastra, which it resembles and with which it is often confused, is one of the most traditional, appreciated and recognized cheeses among consumers of this southeast region. Its production technique was legally defined by legislation from Minas Gerais in 2002 as traditional and characteristic elements of the territory. The production of typical Araxá cheese occurs in the towns of Campos Altos, Conquista, Ibiá, Pedrinópolis, Perdizes, Pratinha, Sacramento, Santa Juliana, Tapira, Uberaba and Araxá.
Araxá cheese has been traditionally eaten after aging. Time between production and sale was once rather long, also because the cheeses were transported by donkey over difficult mountain roads in the region. With improvements to the roads and an increase in the number of consumers, this cheese has begun to be appreciated also served fresh, after a shorter aging time. Today, one can find both aged and semi-aged cheese, particularly in the markets of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. Ideal aging time for Araxá cheese is 22 days, but the majority of the production is eaten fresh in the production region of Belo Horizonte and in other areas within the state of Minas Gerais. Aging normally occurs in the production location at room temperature on wooden shelves. Cheeses can also be brought to aging rooms maintained by private businesses and/or the Minas Gerais government with support from the national government.
Located in the region of Triângulo Mineiro and Alto Paranaíba, the territory where Araxá cheese is produced contains over 200 years of tradition of artisanal cheese production, consumption and sales, dating back to the very first settlements within the area and the introduction of cattle and production of milk and its byproducts. After the decline of the Gold Age, between 1770 and 1780, the first inhabitants arrived in the town of Araxá and organized the first farms in the region. Over time, and with the construction of industrial complexes and mines in the region, the production of cheese has undergone changes, particularly regarding aging times, nevertheless, never being completely abandoned, and continuing still today to be identified as an important source of income for both large and small-scale producers and their families. In Araxá, one finds the Museum of Minas Artisanal Cheese, where old wooden forms used by artisan producers from various regions are exhibited, along with the equipment that is used today.
About 1500 producers (mostly rural and small-scale) make the cheese. Almost all have to sell their cheese unofficially, if they are not members of the IMA (Minas Gerais Institute for Agriculture). Most producers make 5-30 kg of cheese per day (between 5 and 30 individual cheeses from 50-300 liters of milk). The IMA, which promotes cheese sales, requires that cheesemakers adapt their facilities to government standards, which many are not able to do. The producers to not have the available funds to permit them to meet the existing regulations, and have major difficulty gaining access to credit. Misinformation and isolation do not allow for a cooperative producers’ association, which might help them overcome some difficulties. The lack of certification hinders the distribution, sale and expansion of the market for these producers who do not see an alternative to illegal or hidden sales. For all these reasons, of about 1500 producers in the region, as of 2014 fewer than 20 have been able to join the Minas Gerais Institute for Agriculture. Finally, most producers are elderly, and their children, like younger generations in general, are not interested in learning the cheese production techniques. If things do not change, there is a medium-term risk of extinction for Araxá cheese.