Pão de queijo is the history of Brazil in a moreish cheese snack | Travel

At almost every Brazilian gathering you’ll find pão de queijo (pronounced pow-ge-kay-ju) on the table: small golden cheese balls with a crunchy crust, a light, fluffy centre and a slightly tart flavour. They are similar to French gougère but are naturally gluten free.

Its culinary roots can almost certainly be traced back to the landlocked state of Minas Gerais in south-east Brazil. It’s thought that the indigenous Guaraní peoples pounded native cassava, otherwise known as yuca or manioc, to make basic bread long before the arrival of the Portuguese in 1500. When the colonisers settled in Minas, bringing with them African slaves – the colonial capital Ouro Preto was at the heart of the Brazilian gold rush – they discovered that the land wasn’t suitable for cultivating grains like wheat, and turned to this hardy, starchy tuber.

Fare play … pão de queijo are best eaten fresh from the oven. Photograph: TNS/Getty

Like bitter almonds, cassava root contains cyanide and rendering it edible was a laborious process; it had to be peeled, finely grated, soaked in water and dried. This left behind a residue of powdery tapioca starch that the slaves, desperate to boost their paltry diet, would scrape out of the bowls and roll into small balls of dough before baking.

Fast-forward to the late 19th century; slavery was abolished, cattle farms were widespread, and salty, aged Minas cheese, milk and eggs were added to the mix, and this historic snack went nationwide. It is available around-the-clock and often sold in bars, but it’s best eaten at breakfast, fresh from the oven and washed down with a cup of Brazilian coffee.
Some of Brazil’s top chefs will appear at the Festival de Gastronomia de Tiradentes in Minas Gerais from 18-27 August

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