Words by Bruce McMichael
Photos by Slow Food Archive (Photo Cover by Alessandro Vargiu)
Greedy, curious hands grab tiny pieces of diced cheese stalls displaying the Cheese 2019 logo before bringing these taste bombs to the mouth to chew and swallow, imagining new pairings and recipes. Along with 200.000 visitors, the natural cheese world descended on Bra, Piedmont – the town famous for being the birthplace and spiritual home of global activist movement, Slow Food. Every two years over a long September weekend the town is given over to cheese. Roads and car parks are closed; dozens of gazebos installed; street bars set up and household fridges cleared and cleaned ready for chunks of smelly cheeses, and this year charcuterie, craft beer and natural wine. Behind the festival stalls stand heavily bearded cheese makers hipsters, tousled haired shepherds from the mountains of Sardinia and Sicily, and cheese mongers wearing national costume. Cheese rounds from Switzerland, Sweden and Russia compete for attention, while tired palates are refreshed with local wines, sour fruit beers and cups of bitter espresso.
Food politics and natural cheese are natural partners. This year, controversial issues such as PDO and PGI labels sparked fierce debate, while Sardinian farmers talked about how their protests and campaign to achieve fair milk prices and boost the value of their island’s major export, Pecorino Romano cheese. The festival celebrated 12 years of getting the world to appreciate the skills, traditions and flavours of cheeses made with natural (unpasteurised) milk. Governments and consumers around the world are nervous about eating products created with non-pasteurised milk.
One attention grabbing cheese was Salers, a semi-hard product from Auvergne, central France. Only milk from Salers cattle that graze ancient volcanic soils on mountain pastures between April and November is used. The grass is full of wild flowers including gentian and blueberry that flourish in hot summers months nurturing a strong tasting, pressed semi-hard cheese. Younger rounds offer fresh buttery aromas before maturing and transforming into gentler scents into pungent, woody and smoky notes. Its making requires great skill from the herdsman and cheese-maker, but is very much worth the effort.
Festivals such as Cheese2019 help raise awareness of natural cheeses, with their funky flavours, surprising texture, ranging from soft to runny and from firm to chalky depending on seasons, milk and how the cheese maker presents his terroir, so a Camembert-style cheese distinctively tastes of the fields and milk of Normandy, France; British Columbia or the grass growing in New Zealand.
Intriguing flavour pairings were introduced to cheese enthusiasts such as pairing buffalo mozzarella and buffalo ricotta with oysters and seawater in dish created by Italian chef Vittori Fusari. The meal was paired with the flinty, fresh white wines made Nascetta and Timorasso grape varietals native to Piedmont. Nomadic cheese maker Trevor Warmedahl had just left the Mongolian cheese where he was taught ancient ways of making cheeses using yak milk, and was on his way to a mountain pastures in Styria, Austria to learn more techniques He says he had ”never tasted so many complex and diverse cheeses in one place. The taste and flavours of cheese made using different, natural starter cultures is so much better and interesting that industrially produced cheeses. I knew this intellectually but I fully understood its importance after my sensory experience here at the festival”.
Slow Food’s Cheese festival takes place every other year and a key part of the recruiting students to follow a Masters in Raw Milk and Cheese course starting in January 2021 (www.unisg.it). Applications open next year for those who want to know their Salers from their Pecorinos.