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?