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World: Brazil's unsung craft cheese winning fans in high places

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Good luck finding a GPS signal or sign to get to Rita de Cassia's secluded farm in the mountains of southeastern Brazil.

A wheel of Garrafao cheese in Alagoa, in the southern region of Minas Gerais, Brazil: 57 Brazilian cheeses won medals at the biennial © DOUGLAS MAGNO A wheel of Garrafao cheese in Alagoa, in the southern region of Minas Gerais, Brazil: 57 Brazilian cheeses won medals at the biennial "Mondial du Fromage" in Tours, France in September, putting unsung Brazil only second to France as the world's best

The best bet for food-lovers chasing her award-winning handmade cheese is to stop and ask for directions.

Cassia's "Garrafao" is one of 57 Brazilian cheeses that won medals at the biennial "Mondial du Fromage" in Tours, France in September.

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That put unsung Brazil, a country not widely known for its cheese, second only to France on the podium of the world's best.

"'What do your cows eat that makes the cheese so delicious?'": that is the question Brazil's representative at the event, Debora de Carvalho, says she got time and again from French colleagues.

The bucolic region where Cassia's farm sits, in the longtime "queijo" (cheese) producing state of Minas Gerais, harbors a few answers.

Settled three centuries ago by colonists digging for gold, the area started producing cheese when an Italian shoemaker, Paschoal Poppa, arrived in the village of Alagoa in the early 20th century with a recipe for parmesan.

Today, the municipality of 2,700 people is home to no less than 135 cheese-makers, several of whom have won prizes at recent editions of the festival in Tours.

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That is generating a nascent gastronomy tourism industry in Alagoa, whose sleepy streets are now decorated with mini-Eiffel Towers at cheese shops, celebrating the town's newfound status as a foodie destination.

- Old-school methods -

The prizes "have changed our lives," says Dirce Martins, who has been making cheese here for 39 years.

"Nobody used to come here. Buyers basically paid whatever price they wanted for our cheese. Now we have all these visitors," she says, giving a tour of the small room where she ages her multi-award-winning "Fumace" on wooden shelves.

Caik Soares works in the production of Alagoa Fumace cheese in Alagoa, southern region of Minas Gerais, Brazil © DOUGLAS MAGNO Caik Soares works in the production of Alagoa Fumace cheese in Alagoa, southern region of Minas Gerais, Brazil

Her cows graze at an altitude of 1,500 meters (nearly 5,000 feet), on otherwise untouched land rich in soil nutrients.

Working alongside her husband and son, Martins produces at most 60 smoked cheeses a day.

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Cassia, 32, has a similarly small operation: she and her husband, Marcos, make around 15 kilograms (33 pounds) of cheese a day with their 15 dairy cows, who sport names like France, Spain and Denmark.

An employee holds a Santo Casamenteiro cheese stored in Cruzilia, in the southern region of Minas Gerais, Brazil: the newfound attention the cheeses have won has allowed producers to up their prices © DOUGLAS MAGNO An employee holds a Santo Casamenteiro cheese stored in Cruzilia, in the southern region of Minas Gerais, Brazil: the newfound attention the cheeses have won has allowed producers to up their prices

"It's hard work -- 6:00 am to 10:00 pm every day, rain or shine, or even pregnant," says Cassia, who is expecting her second child.

"And the competition is tough," she adds, as she shows how she and her husband artificially inseminate the cows themselves.

She learned the trade from her father-in-law.

"It became a passion," she says. "Cheese is almost a living being."

She and her husband credit the silver medal they won in France with luring the big-city suppliers who now brave the rocky valley road to their farm to buy their cheeses at 45 reais ($8) apiece.

"It gave us a lot of visibility," she says.

- 'Legalize' cheese -

"For a French cheese, winning a prize boosts its value by up to 20 percent. In Brazil, the increase is 300 to 400 percent," says Carvalho, the director of SerTaoBras, an association that promotes Brazilian craft cheeses.

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An aerial view of Alagoa, in a rural area of Minas Gerais state that has become the hub of Brazil's emerging craft cheese sector © DOUGLAS MAGNO An aerial view of Alagoa, in a rural area of Minas Gerais state that has become the hub of Brazil's emerging craft cheese sector

World-famous or not, small cheese producers in Brazil say they are hampered by tough regulations on animal-based food products, modeled after those in the United States, where nearly all cheese is pasteurized.

"You have to meet 900 different conditions," says Carvalho.

As a result, most cheese producers in the Alagoa region are only allowed to sell locally.

"We're pressuring the government to legalize craft cheese nationwide," says Carvalho.

In Brazil, "you could never get a permit to make a cheese like Cabrales, from Spain, which is aged in natural caves," says Juliana Jensen, research director for booming craft cheese producer Cruzilia.

The company won a "super gold" in France with its "Santo Casamenteiro," a blue cheese with apricots and nuts that looks like a wedding cake.

Cruzilia, which has a line of more than 90 products, has increased production by 30 percent in three years.

"Brazilians are starting to look within our own borders and value our flavors and traditions," says Jensen.

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