Queijo Coalho de Cabra (meaning “goat rennet cheese”) is artisanally produced by families in the outback of Bahia, in eastern Brazil. Most producers of queijo coalho are women and their husbands look after goat and sheep rearing, promoting monitoring and the level of quality of goat’s milk production. Known as fundo and fecho de pasto communities, the producers have a special way of rearing their animals which roam free on the Caatinga, in an area that belongs to one family or close relatives.
The cheese is made with animal-derived rennet and raw milk from either crossbreeds of goats (mixtures of native breeds with imported breeds) or from imported Saanen goats. The local community generally treat the goats with homemade medicines, made from medicinal plants native to the Caatinga, such as aroeira, pau ferro, umburana, watermelon leaves and sesame. For major diseases, conventional vaccines are used.
To make the cheese, the dried rennet is soaked in water or goat’s milk overnight. The following day it is drained and added to the goat’s milk and left to stand until the milk curdles, approximately 15 minutes. The mixture is stirred and left to stand for another 20 minutes until it solidifies. The whey is strained off, leaving only milk solids, which are placed into a wooden mold and pressed by hand to remove excess whey (which is used as feed for the goats). Boiling water is then poured over the cheeses still in their molds. Next the forms are salted on one side for two hours, and then salted on the opposite side. They are left to stand overnight in the open air, covered with a cloth.
The following day, the cheeses are rinsed and then ready for consumption. If not consumed immediately, they are soaked in whey for two hours to improve their shelf life. The cheese may be stored for ten days refrigerated or four days at room temperature. Queijo coalho is part of the outback diet, where it is eaten before going to work with the animals. In households, queijo coalho de cabra is eaten with coffee and couscous in the morning. It can be eaten at lunch, with cassava flour and panela. As dessert, it is served with goat’s milk dulce de leche or sugar.
The tradition of making queijo coalho de cabra has been passed down for generations in goat-herding families of the semi-arid State of Bahia. Particular areas where this cheese is produced include Juazeiro, Casa Nova and Melancia. The cheese is generally made by families and produced to order or for personal use. Due to the long dry periods that may occur in the region, production levels vary seasonally. In a year with good rainfall and well-fed animals, artisanal producers can make an average of 45 kg of cheese per week.
Restrictions on sale in markets are justified by the fact that the product does not comply with sanitary hygiene standards due to a lack of adequate infrastructure in accordance with legal regulations, and because the product is unpasteurized. In the past the product used to be sold at local markets, but this is currently not permitted. In the long term, artisanally made queijo coalho is at risk of disappearing due to the difficulty of selling it and the lack of involvement of young people in local production, leading producers to consider production as additional income and production, despite its popularity with families and its commercial potential. Another threat has been pressure from institutions relating to hygiene and food safety regulations, which are inflexible and not suited to artisanal production, or are intended to improve the product without inhibiting social aspects and local traditions.
Image: Reveca Tapie