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.