Queijo da canastra

Ark of taste
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Queijo da canastra

Traditional Canastra cheese has a yellowish white color, with a yellowish rind that, depending on whether the climate is dry or humid, can have some cracks. The consistency is semi-hard or slightly softer, buttery and compact. It has a cylindrical shape, a height of 6-9 cm, a diameter of 15-17 cm and a weight from 1-1.3 kg.  The taste is lightly acidic, but it is not spicy and it is pleasing on the palate. It is also sold in a smaller form called merendeiro that is 10 cm in diameter and 5 cm in height. In São Roque de Minas, Medeiros and Vargem Bonita, another variation is produced with different dimensions that is 26-30 cm in diameter, 7-8 cm tall and weighing 5-7 kg, called Canastra Real or Canastrão. Local history states that this cheese was produced in the past for special events, such as on the occasion of visits from Church authorities, royalty or captains.  

The cheese is made from cow’s milk from the livestock in the area, a mixed breed (of Bos taurus and Bos indicus) with various different crosses. The cattle are mainly raised on pasture, and during droughts their feed is augmented with sugar cane, silage and soy and corn bran. In the past, the wild pasture was made up of wild oats and native grasses, but today it is make up of or replaced by cultivated pastures with grasses and oats that are more productive (of the Brachiaria genus in particular). Maintaining the native grass species is considered by the more traditional producers to be a way of guaranteeing a higher quality taste in the best Canastra cheeses.  

To make Canastra cheese, the raw milk is filtered directly into a vat, into which the rennet and pingo (whey from the previous day) is added. It takes about 90 minutes for the milk to coagulate, and it is then broken and mixed with a wooden or metal stirrer. The whey is then drained from the paste, which is then divided into portions and put into forms of 15 cm in diameter, usually made of plastic (the forms for Canastra Reale are 26-30 cm in diameter). In the form, the paste is manually pressed, usually with the use of a cloth. When the paste is compacted, it is covered with coarse sea salt. After 6-12 hours, the pingo whey is collected, and at this point the cheese is turned and salted on the other side. The day after, the salt is wiped away and the form is turned again. One or two days after, the cheese is removed from the form and placed on a wooden shelf in a well-ventilated area to age. Apart from the milking, the entire process takes place in the queijaria or casinha do queijo (“cheese house”), under the care of women who may also be assisted by men.  

Traditional Canastra is usually consumed after aging of 21 days. Today, some producers prefer to age their cheese for even longer. The cheese is usually aged in the same location where it is produced or an adjoining room on wooden shelves. These cheese rooms are built near or attached to the producers’ homes. For legal reasons, an Aging Center is being constructed for the collective use of the producers’ association, with financing from the national and regional government, for periods of longer aging. The production method of this cheese in the region of Canastra was recognized in 2008 as a historical cultural heritage of Brazil by IPHAN (the National Institute of Historical Heritage).   The current communities that make up the territory where Canastra is produced are: Bambuí, Delfinópolis, Medeiros, Piumhi, São Roque de Minas, Tapiraí and Vargem Bonita, where the raw milk artisanal cheese has been produced since the times of the Portuguese colonial settlers, who came to the territory since the beginning of the 18th century. Most producers make less than 30 cheeses of 1-1.2 kg per day. However, producers face difficulties dealing with the legal requirements relating to dairy production. Ultra-hygienic standards have been designed with large-scale industrial production in mind. Not being able to fulfill the requirements of the law, the small farmers are not able to freely market the cheese they produce, and are therefore inclined to sell them in a non-official ways, or even clandestinely. Generally, health inspectors, especially those at the national level, ignore the reality of artisan cheese production and do not consider the socioeconomic and cultural importance for a high number of small rural producers and their respective families. In light of this, the production methods and knowledge is not handed down. Children of producers are not interested in continuing this family activity, which provides little economic return, and they prefer to learn other trades and move to cities.

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Minas Gerais

Production area:Bambuí, Delfinópolis, Medeiros, Piumhi, São Roque de Minas, Tapiraí e Vargem Bonita Municipalities

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Milk and milk products

Nominated by:Débora Pereira