At the largest sea-river island in the world, on the Northern Brazilian state of Pará, a tradition passed down through generations produces a smooth, creamy, and world-renowned buffalo cheese. In March 2021, the Marajó Cheese received a Geographical Indication (GI) tag of Protected Designation of Origin. Its unique identity reflects the atmosphere of the island, the historical knowledge of the cheese masters, and good practices adopted by farmers.
Cecilia and Marcus Pinheiro are descendants of some of the first colonizers who moved to the region. The couple manages the São Victor Farm, and since 2006 they produce buffalo cheese. According to them, the first member of the family to live on the island arrived in the 18th century. Though it is unclear when the cheese production began, documents from 1922 show the family’s accounting on local sales.
In the early 1920s, the first buffalos arrived in Marajó. Until then, local cheese production has mostly been made from cow’s milk. “Our relationship with the cheese culture comes from our DNA. Our families have a very long and strong tradition,” says Cecilia.
The Marajó Cheese is produced from raw buffalo milk with natural fermentation, it is not ripened and is sold refrigerated and fresh.
“We are keen to keep our production artisanal, which means the cheese may have very little flavor variation throughout the year. Many producers struggle with that, but we are very fortunate to have an excellent cheese master, who can keep the same standard in all batches,” explains Cecilia.
São Victor’s cheese was the first one in the North Region of Brazil to receive the “Selo Arte” [Art Seal], a certificate that assures that the product was prepared in an artisanal way, following a traditional process, with regional or cultural characteristics. It received the Gold award from the National Meeting of Breeders of Buffalos and Marajó Búfalos in 2017; Brazil Cheese Awards, being Bronze in 2017, Super Gold in 2018 (taking 1st place with 500 participating Brazilian artisanal kinds of cheese) and Gold in 2019; and, finally, the Silver Prize of the 4th Edition of the Mondial du Fromage et des Produits Laitiers, in France.
On their farm, animals are bred free and their well-being is a priority: “Our manager calls all of them by their names and even sings for them.” And as another indication of the cheese culture running into the family’s DNA, her 10-year-old son, Victor, is already learning the Marajó art.
The recent acknowledgment has been increasing consumer’s interest in cheese throughout the country. Guilherme Souza Dias, a technical advisor at the National Confederation of Agriculture and Livestock (CNA), emphasizes that buffalo cheese is considered a “noble food,” and as it is rich in protein and low in fat, has obtained attention from those seeking a healthier diet.
“In addition, acknowledgment puts the region on the map, values local tradition and the breeding of buffalos,” says Souza Dias. “The geographical indication and the Art Seals are nationalizing the flavor of Marajó island.”
Hildegardo Nunes, the president of the Rural Union of Soure, one of the 12 Marajó’s counties, says that the Geographical Indication recognition process was long and laborious. But at the end of the day, it was worth it. “The activity of small and medium buffalo breeders in Marajó is mainly dairy. They produce the milk for other dairies or the production of cheese on their farms. And this represents a very significant circulating income in the region.”
According to a study from the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Supply (MAPA) released in 2020, there are 65 to 70 cheese factories in Marajó. Not all of them produce exclusively buffalo products. The more structured ones can produce an average of 60 kg to 100 kg per day.
Brazil has the largest herd of buffalos in the continent: 1.8 million heads, 80% in its Northern states. According to the Municipal Livestock Survey (PPM), carried out in 2017 by the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE), the largest concentration of buffalos is found in Marajó island. In 2016, it had about 520 thousand heads (38% of the national total).
More than 170 thousand milk producers in the country manufacture artisanal kinds of cheese as a value-adding strategy. This represents approximately 15% of rural establishments that produce milk, according to the 2017 Agricultural Census.