Every two years the medieval market town of Bra, in Italy's Northern Piedmont region, hosts a four-day street fair for cheese lovers and cheese makers from around the world.
A cheese fiend since childhood, I finally found the right occasion to indulge my passion and get certified doing it! I was off to Bra to smell brie, among other delicacies, and to take a Master in Cheese course.
When I arrived in Bra on a sunny Friday morning in September, hundreds of cheeses of different shapes and forms had been carted into the town by their producers and put on display, ready to be tasted by the crowd swarming the small streets and bustling piazzas. "E` una festa!" exclaimed a local shopkeeper as I wove my way amid the stands, and a party it was, a cheese fest.
Pecorino, Gorgonzola, fontina, mozzarella, provolone, bitto, robiola, taleggio and hundreds of different cheeses with obscure names had arrived from all the Italian regions along with cheeses from distant parts of the world: Yak cheese from the highlands of Tibet, blue cheese from America and goat cheeses from all corners of the globe — from the desert lands of Cape Verde, to Australia, Lebanon and Armenia. Not to mention the best selections from world-famous producers France and Switzerland and of course every European country.
And in fact, all around me I caught snippets of animated discussions about cheese in all sorts of languages.
"This Gouda is sensational, nothing like the Gouda we get in Germany," said German food connoisseur Bert Gamerschlag.
The cheeses came in all types, shapes, sizes and ages: soft, hard, stretched, pressed or blue. Cheeses that have been made in the same elaborate way since the dawn of time with a variety of techniques that produce an amazing assortment of taste and texture: from mouthfuls of oozing delicacies to simple fresh creamy cheeses wrapped in grass for preservation.
"This cheese dates way back. Leonardo da Vinci ate it," I was told by Roberto Grattone, the proud producer of Montebore, a cow and ewe's milk cheese in the shape of a small wedding cake. "It was the only cheese on the menu at the 15th-century wedding banquet of Isabella of Aragon and Gian Galeazzo Sforza, which we know Leonardo attended," Grattone added.
"Cheese" in English, as this fair is called, is the brainchild of Carlo Petrini, founder of the Slow Food movement, who launched this event in 1996. It has grown into an international fun event attracting more than 150,000 people this year, not all Italians.
Petrini started the Slow Food movement in 1986 to counter the rapidly spreading fast food culture and the rushed pace of modern life starting to take hold in Italy. Since then it has become active in 50 countries and attracted 80,000 members worldwide.
Its aim is to prevent the disappearance of local food traditions and kindle interest in the food we eat, where it comes from, how it tastes and how food choices affect the rest of the world.
Petrini was at Bra, where he reiterated his movement's mantra: We stand for "good, clean and fair food," he said. According to Slow Food, what you eat should taste good; it should be produced in a way that does not harm the environment, animal welfare or people's health; and food producers should receive fair compensation for their work.
With growing concern about industrialized food produced for global needs and greater interest in eating locally produced goods that are made the traditional way, good wholesome cheese takes on a whole new appeal.
Some of the 200 cheese booths at Bra are dedicated to cheeses that risk disappearing if their producers are not assisted and encouraged. These include a Swedish goat cheese that is ripened in caves and is made with milk from a particular breed of goat, the Svensk Lantras, which is at risk of extinction. Only about a dozen cheese makers still produce this cheese in the Jamtland and Harjedalen areas of Sweden.
The Darfiyeh cheese from the mountainous region of Northern Lebanon is made by shepherds from raw goat's milk that is matured in goatskins and then aged in humid cellars.
Geitost is a sweet caramelized brown cheese produced from the whey of raw goat's milk, using an unusual technique found only in Norway and Sweden. The lactose sugar present in the milk crystallizes and gives the cheese its typical brown color.
Armenia is represented with a cheese called motal produced from goat's milk and wild herbs. It is kept in terra cotta jars sealed with beeswax or a special local bread. The jars are then placed upside down on ashes in cold dry cellars where they are left to ripen for many months.
And the list goes on, from the Bulgarian green cheese of Tcherni Vit, to the Bosnian Herzegovina cheese in a sack, the Polish oscypek cheese, the Albanian Permet cheese and the Romanian branza de burduf, which is matured in pine bark or pig bladder.
Nonindustrial American cheese is represented here too: Some of the best artisan cheeses the United States has to offer can be tasted in Bra. They are a product of the growing revolution under way in the United States, where top-quality cheeses and a host of other foods made on a small scale are rapidly gaining fans.
I met U.S. cheese expert and Slow Food advocate Jeffrey Roberts who presented his new book in Bra. "The Atlas of American Artisan Cheese" is a handy directory for cheese buffs that profiles the local cheese producers in every U.S. state. Roberts was amazed by the variety and local know-how he discovered while researching his book.
"Too often America is seen as a center of processed and industrialized food. This book represents a change," he said. "A small revolution."
A huge tent called the Great Hall of Cheese had been set up in the main square where for a minimal fee you could choose to taste any of the hundreds of cheeses on display and wash them down with sips of wine from an array of more than 1,500 bottles — not just Italian.
But my interest in cheese goes well beyond just curiosity — I wanted to become a true expert, so I attended five hours of classes over two days to get my certificate as Master of Cheese, the dairy version of a sommelier.
There were 60 of us cheese heads attending, and we were each provided with a book on cheese making, a notebook and tasting forms to fill out. Also provided: a basket of bread and a bottle of water to clean our palate between tastes. After grumbling, we were informed that a real cheese taster doesn't sip wine between cheeses because it can alter the taste. Drat! Who ever heard of water and cheese?
Our introductory course was meant to give us a brief history of cheese making and teach us to taste and analyze our senses, study the different kinds of milk — cow, sheep and goat — used to make cheese, learn the different methods for making cheese and finally put the theory into practice and actually do some professional tasting.
We started on first base: milk, of course. Four cups of different milk were put in front of each of us. "Learn to use all your senses," said our cheese instructor, Eric Vassallo, as we stared at the white liquid. For those of us who aren't regular milk drinkers, this was the most difficult part — even distasteful.
That's OK, said Vassallo. Even he, a true cheese master, said he never drinks milk and found this test very trying. Surprisingly, the milk samples turned out to be very different in taste and smell. We were told to choose the best, most wholesome glass. And what did most of us choose? Amazingly and sadly we almost all found the sterilized UHT (ultra high temperature processed) milk to be the best. This milk is so processed it has a shelf life of six months without refrigeration. This depressed us all, but Vassallo reassured us again. He said it is a normal response nowadays, because this is the milk most of us are given regularly now.
Tasting cheese itself was not much easier — especially as nearly all the cheeses were excellent — but it was certainly much more pleasant. After learning about the amazing number of ways of making cheese and the choices made along the way that can change the product dramatically, we finally did some serious cheese tasting.
At the end of the first lesson we were handed plates with five different pieces of cheese — no names, no clues — and instructed to say what they were, where they came from, what kind of milk they were made with, how mature they were and what they tasted like. And we were asked to make a judgment: bad, good or exceptional.
Like wine, cheese tasting has its own terminology to describe smell, touch and taste: first tastes, back tastes, acidity, bitterness, creamy, crumbly. Can you taste the grass? Does it have tints of yeast, bouillon flavor? We students were not very versed in the terminology, but someone tasted smoked sausage and another one said the cheese reminded him of clams. We were warned to distinguish between taste and associative taste, which is very hard — and none of us had ever spent so much time studying a piece of cheese.
On day two, after more theory and practical instruction — always store cheese in the warmest part of the fridge — we arrived at the final test: five different blue cheeses. We studied the rind, the texture, the colors of the whole cheeses before focusing on the morsels on our plates. Stilton, Gorgonzola, Roquefort, murianello, bleu de gex … which is which? Wow, was this hard … such pungent, strong cheese just begged for some wine to wash it down. In the end our instructor relented and out came a glass of wine for us all: to glorious cheese and to us, the new cheese masters!
The next "Cheese" fair in Bra will be in the fall of 2009. Cheese fans, start planning your trip now.