Queijo cabacinha is a cheese that is yellowish-white and straw yellow colored when aged. Its shape resembles a small pumpkin (cabaça) with a figure-8 shape, with the smaller sphere at the top. It is a stretched curd cheese, smooth and compact, with occasional eyes. Its flavor is simple and delicate, more pronounced with aging. It is made with whole, raw, cow’s milk from dairy cattle crossbreeds. Industrial rennet (liquid or powder) derived from cow’s stomach is used. The cattle are raised on pasture, with forage consisting of Hyparrhenia rufa, Melinis minutiflora and Brachiaria grasses.
To make the cheese, freshly milked milk is filtered into container through a piece of cloth. The rennet is added, and occasionally also whey, and this mixture is left to rest for about an hour. The curds are then broken and left to rest for a few minutes. Immediately after, the mixing proceeds with a spoon, with slow movements that aim to separate the solid mass from the whey. The paste is then drained in a cloth and pressed, then left to ferment at room temperature until the next day (usually hung, sometimes in the same cloth). The morning after, small portions of the paste are put in a wooden container and washed with water at about 75°C. The cheesemaker works the paste with specific movements, beginning first with a wooden spoon, and once the desired consistency is reached, he takes the paste in his hands and shapes it into the characteristic figure-8 shape. Once shaped, the cheese is placed into a bucket or tub of brine, where it will remain for a variable period of time, depending on the dimensions and how much seasoning the cheesemaker wishes to confer. After some time, the cheese is eaten immediately or refrigerated, or conserved at room temperature for further aging. This is generally done when requested by the client who intends to use the product for cooking. Locally, this cheese is usually consumed fresh, the day after production. It can be conserved under refrigeration maintaining its characteristics, while a small part is left for aging, often for use in cooking, in the production of biscuits, cheese sandwiches and other products. When aged, the cheese is hung at room temperature by the middle of its form from a rope.
The exact origins of cabacinha cheese in the Jequitinhonha region are not certain. However, being of a type of cheese also produced in southern Italy and various regions of eastern Europe, it is believed that the production technique was introduced in Brazil by professionals of the Istituto Cândido Tostes, who have had a significant influence at the local level. In Brazil, the cheese was named cabacinha because it recalls the shape of a particular small pumpkin. The production techniques and cheese have been adapted and spread mainly in the region of high Jequitinhonha, in the towns of Almenara, Araçuaí, Capelinha, Pedra Azul and others. The production has been adapted to the climatic conditions, the technique and local resources, giving live to a particular cheese that has quickly become the symbol of local cheese production, acquiring a social and economic importance. It is sold in supermarkets and farmers’ markets as well as at roadside stands.
The biggest threat to cabacinha cheese is the rigidity of the health regulations, which require a disproportionate investment to adapt local production premises, with the need for structural changes and seeking the abandonment of traditional tools and equipment. These regulations were clearly created with industrial standards in mind, relating to large-scale production, and making it difficult for small-scale producers that are constricted to working in secret or abandoning their cheesemaking activity.