SEIA, Portugal – Cheesemakers in a mountainous region of central Portuguese have dedicated their entire lives to producing a unique dairy product that requires round-the-clock attention, but with a lack of skilled workers and with offspring choosing other careers, the industry’s future is at stake.
Antonio Cardoso Simão and his wife Odete put their flock of sheep out to pasture every morning and spend their afternoons making their creamy “Serra da Estrela” cheese.
“It’s a 24-hours-a-day trade that lasts the entire week, with no rest,” Simão told EFE. He has dedicated himself to his craft practically since he was born 58 years ago, and represents the fourth generation of pastors in the village of São Romão in the municipality of Seia.
From Friday until Shrove Tuesday, the couple will be among those at the Seia Cheese Festival, expecting to welcome thousands of visitors who come to see how to milk the animals and how cheese is made by hand.
The cheesemakers’ day starts at 6 am with the milking of 300 Bordaleira sheep, which are native to the region. After feeding the flock and milking it using machines, Simão does another round of milking by hand in order to make sure he has all the milk.
They collect about 70 liters every day to make their cheese, which they sell from a store at their home.
“It’s not hard to milk because I was almost born doing it,” the farmer said with a smile as he squeezed out the last remaining milk from an udder before whistling his dog over to take the sheep out to graze.
Odete, 57, meanwhile took care of carrying 20-liter milk jugs off to their cheese factory.
“We use a natural rennet, which is a thistle from Seia, and the pastures here give a unique flavor to the milk,” she said.
She poured the milk into a tank, where it mixed with natural rennet and was left for about an hour to solidify.
After lunch, Odete removed the curds, separating them from the whey, which would be used to make cottage cheese, another of the region’s delicacies.
She put the curds into a cotton cloth and kneaded it with her hands until it formed a circular shape, which would then go into a container for curing.
The fermentation process lasts a month and a half, the artisan cheesemaker said, adding that every day “without fail” the cheeses have to be moved and cleaned to remove the build-up of mold.
The couple sells all the cheese they make in their own store “and people come to buy it here.”
But the business is becoming less profitable as time goes on, according to the couple.
And another problem is a lack of workforce, Seia councilor Cristina Sousa told EFE, who pointed out that the shepherds are getting older and there are no qualified workers to replace them.
Simão and Odete’s three children would not be following their parents footsteps in the trade.
Millions of cheeses are made in the area every year, which in addition to being sold locally are also exported abroad, to Spain, France, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Germany and Brazil.
The 2019 edition of the cheese festival will see some 70 kilos of cheese made by all the producers in the area.