In the historic village of Castelo Novo, Dona Maria de Jesus and Fernanda Duarte explain the secrets to making good cheese. One of them is having cold hands
We do not understood why Beira Baixa cheeses have never reached the pedestal of great Portuguese cheeses. They have character, charisma, and flavor to spare. It’s not that they go unrecognized, but they probably do not get the attention they deserve. There are three varieties with protected designation of origin (PDO): Castelo Branco cheese, Beira Baixa Amarelo (yellow) cheese, and Beira Baixa Picante (spicy) cheese.
In an attempt to learn more about these delicious cheeses, we went to the “Learn how to make cheese” workshop with Fernanda Duarte and Dona Maria de Jesus in Castelo Novo.
To make cheese that weighs one kilogram, it takes nearly five liters of milk. “The fattier, the better,” according to Dona Fernanda, who believes that making cheese is like riding a bicycle – one never forgets. We used sheep’s milk and a bit of goat’s milk for this cheese. Aside from milk, just curds and salt.
Another very important lesson: “Cold hands” are not synonymous with a “warm heart,” although they help when it comes to handling cheese. At the height of her 90 years of age, Dona Maria de Jesus recalls how her father, a trader and owner of a large livestock, ran with her when it was time to make cheese because her hands were always too hot. “I think my hands are colder now,” she says while tightening the cheese mold a little more. “But yours is getting better, Fernanda, so your hands must be even colder than mine.”
The cheese mold is a type of long belt, a circular mold used to press the cheese and give it its form. Like belts, they have holes that are tightened as the whey is removed and the cheese becomes more compact. We use our hands to press the cheese against the – pay attention – francela, a wooden table that is used for making cheese and leaving it to dry. If it’s handmade, like this one, even better.
Whey drains into a bucket underneath and is used later to make curd cheese or travia, which is more common in this region.
Around the work area, it does not take long to hear the trainers from the bench. “Fernanda, you have to tighten the mold!” They yell before discovering that they can use their mouths in another way on the cheese-tasting table. Here, we can taste Amarelo and Picante cheese, or “fiery hot,” as these two friends call it. To accompany the cheese, there are jams and cornbreads of the region.
After lots of pressing, the two cheese makers are reasonably satisfied with the result, and it is time to add salt. “Now, we cannot put too much for heart health reasons,” says Dona Fernanda while her eyes search for the salt. But where is it? It takes forever to get the salt. Meanwhile, the church bell tolls and provides background music to Dona Maria de Jesus’s impatience. “If I don’t go to Mass, the sin is all on you because no one brought me salt.”
A workshop where we have learned a lot and once again realize that one of the priorities of the Portuguese Historical Villages is to maintain the traditions and customs of local people – one of the reasons why this destination received the BIOSPHERE DESTINATION certificate (the first network, worldwide, and the first at the national level, to be distinguished with this certification).