First the Portuguese encountered the natives.
Pero Vaz Caminha, the chief scribe of the first Portuguese fleet that docked in the lands of Brazil in 1500 mentioned that the natives did not cultivate or raise animals, nor were there any oxen or cows, goats, sheep or chickens or any other animal which were accustomed to man’s way of life. Instead he encountered what he called ‘Yam’ and observed that this root was the food base of the natives of the Brazilian coastline, claiming that to the natives it was their bread. This ‘Yam’ would become a fundamental element for the success of the colonization.
The ‘yam’ the scribe was referring to was the manioc root (also yuca or cassava root). Contrary to what we know as yam, whose origins is in Africa, manioc has its roots in Brazil, in the southeast of the Amazon basin.
The Portuguese observed how the natives prepared the mysterious root.
The Portuguese travelers described in details how the roots were prepared. They were washed, peeled, then grated on a rock . The finely grated paste was squeezed in a straw basket, that extracts all the water, leaving the paste dry. From this an edible flour was made, that was cooked in a bowl. The paste was placed in the bowl and dried over the fire. With no humidity it resembled a white couscous and this is how it was eaten.
Then the Europeans took over the grinding of the flour.
Intrigued by the natives the Europeans in Brazil increased the manioc plantations, and took care of its grinding in flour houses to produce manioc flour. A by-product of the process of pressing water out of the manioc root to make manioc meal, the juice had a fine starch, similar to rice or potato starch. The fresh juice left to dry in the sun yielded ‘polvilho doce’ (sweet manioc starch); from the fermented juice came ‘polvilho azedo’ (sour manioc starch).
The lack of wheat resulted in experimentation.
In the 18th century the flour that arrived from Portugal was not only expensive but of very poor quality. Given that they had not managed to cultivate wheat yet there was always a shortage. The cooks on the large plantations began to experiment with the native starch, slowly substituting it in the recipes for biscuits and cookies that were served to the plantation owners.
Widespread cattle farms made cheese widely available.
When cattle farms became widespread in the country and there was an abundance of cheese the cooks started to add leftover cheese that had hardened, to the ‘biscoito de goma’ (starch cookies) and one of the most famous delicacies from Minas Gerais was born: the Pão de Queijo. Both starches, sweet and sour, are used to make the authentic Pão de Queijo.
To this day, visitors in Minas Gerais are traditionally treated to Pão de Queijo with freshly brewed coffee. Mani prides itself to follow a traditional family recipe from Minas Gerais, using sour and sweet manioc starch to achieve the authentic flavors developed hundreds of years ago.