By Alicynn King
As you stroll down the street in Bra, you can catch a glimpse of the Alps as if they are growing out of the terra cotta roofs that are so characteristic of the Italian countryside. The cobblestone streets are adorned with charming boutiques, wine shops, cafes and specialty markets. Bra is the quintessential, quaint, picturesque town that fills the pages of guidebooks. However, from Sept. 20-23, Bra was anything but quaint, as more than 150,000 cheese aficionados came to the town to taste, discuss and enjoy thousands of cheeses from around the world.
The Slow Cheese Festival happens every two years in Bra, Italy, a town in the northern Piedmont region that is the birthplace of Slow Food International, an organization that promotes gastronomic diversity and the connections between food, culture and the environment. This year’s ninth edition of the biannual event featured a variety of workshops and dinner dates, as well as the Ark of Taste Project, a project that invites individuals to nominate cheeses from around the world that are in severe danger of being lost to standardization within the industry.
The Slow Cheese Festival attracts a wide range of attendees. Although many of those in attendance work in the dairy and cheese industry, a beer tent, wine enoteca and street food carts help elevate this event to more than just an industry show. The crowds swell as hungry cheese connoisseurs converge on the city for four days of food and frivolity.
Tents opened at 10 a.m. and closed at 11 p.m. each day, allowing ample time to taste and talk. On Saturday and Sunday, Italians brought their families to enjoy street performers and educational events geared towards entertaining kids. Friday and Monday, however, remained days of business, as distributors sat down with cheesemongers to arrange business deals and discuss the details of importing.
What makes this event unique is the ability to sit directly with the cheese maker her or himself and discuss the product. Although massive in scope, the intimate nature of the event facilitates this one-on-one interaction.
Throughout the event, free workshops were also held at many of the booths. For example, at one such workshop, participants discussed the differences between pasta filata cheeses in the Puglia region of Italy. At another, those in attendance analyzed the pairing potential between Parmigiano-Reggiano and artisanal beers. In general, this year’s workshops stressed the importance of telling the product’s story, highlighting why each particular product is so important to the industry.
At workshops on milk, participants discussed the issues surrounding raw milk, starter cultures, animal welfare and pasteurization. And guided tastings such as “The Rediscovery of Regional Cheeses of the United Kingdom” were held throughout the four days, in which attendees dove deeper into particular categories of cheese. With thousands of cheeses from around the world being showcased, those lucky enough to be at this year’s event found themselves indulging in an astonishing variety as they wandered from stand to stand.
While Slow Cheese Festival attendee Jesse Schwartzburg, from Tony Fine Foods, has represented many Italian products over the years, this was his first time on Italian soil. Schwartzburg marveled at the variety and depth of products at the festival. He also had the opportunity to meet with producers and visit nearby farms.
“Over the years, I have realized that I have left so much of the story out. Being here I have heard more of the story,” he said. “To understand [cheese], to drink it with Barbera while eating the Toma Della Rocca Robiola, you understand the regionality of the product.”
In addition to the wealth of Italian cheeses, the selection of international cheeses at the event spanned three blocks. Representing the United States at the event was cheese and specialty foods distributor Gourmet Foods International. This was the fourth Slow Cheese Festival in which GFI has participated. This year, the distributor highlighted Red Hawk from Cowgirl Creamery in California, Cremont from Vermont Butter & Cheese Creamery in Vermont, Rouge River Blue from Rouge Creamery in Oregon, Cabot Clothbound Cheddar from Cellars at Jasper Hill in Vermont and Pleasant Ridge Reserve from Uplands Cheese in Wisconsin.
This year, the GFI booth was so popular with consumers and industry members alike that they were one of the few producers that sold out of product by the end of the festival Several European restaurant owners even inquired about how to purchase American cheeses for import.
For many of the European attendees, this was their first real encounter with American cheeses. Giuseppe De Ceseare was in attendance as a translator during the festival, working for the Gourmet Foods International booth. De Ceseare was intrigued by the level of excitement surrounding the cheeses.
“The United States has such big producers that most people don’t know or see the small artisan producers,” he said.
Cow Girl Creamery has had the opportunity to showcase their cheeses at four Slow Cheese Festivals. This was the second year that company co-founder Sue Conley attended the event. For Conley, she values the biannual festival as an opportunity to share her cheeses with a broader audience and to taste what others are making.
“We get to taste cheeses from people we have admired,” Conley said.
The Slow Cheese Festival is an event unlike any other. Filled with a variety of educational opportunities and cheeses, it is the perfect blend of fun and business. For those who are lucky enough to be able to come to Bra, they will surely have an unparalleled opportunity to learn more of the story behind the cheeses they love.
To learn more about 2013 festival and hear about upcoming plans for 2015, visit http://cheese.slowfood.it/en/.