Italy never disappoints me. Coffee, food, wine, weather, people, fashion and above all the cheese. Picture more than 4500 cheeses, all in the one location – quite simply cheese heaven! The four-day event in late September is visited by more than 160,000 cheese lovers and cheeses from around the world are on show in this quaint little town south of Turin in the Piedmonte region. The event is held in the historical part of Bra, which has a population of about 117,000 and it is amazing to see the whole old town transformed to host it. All the locals support and embrace it.
The cobblestone streets are lined with pointy-topped marquees, each one home to a cheese maker for four days. They offer tastings, discussions and education to a keen audience. Upon arriving in Piazza Roma, which has now become quite familiar to me, my senses are shocked into action by the sweet, pungent, cheesey aroma which hangs like a thick cloud above the tiny town.
The word on everyone’s lips is formaggio. Much of the cheese on offer is made using raw milk. The length on the palate makes me smile and the sweetness left in my mouth at the finish is what I have grown to expect from these gems. They have been crafted with little heat treatment, allowing the natural enzymes and cultures to do their job. My mind and palate run wild. In my half Greek, half Italian, which includes serious use of hands I ask – “How is this made? Is it cow, goat, sheep or buffalo milk? Is it raw milk or pasteurized? How old is the cheese? Is it seasonal? How big is the production? Is it matured by an affineur? Is this a DOC cheese?” The willingness of the cheese makers to talk about their treasures and share their knowledge is inspirational.
The answers allow me to get a better understanding of what has been created, why the cheese is sharp, mild, herbaceous, firm or soft and I am richer for the experience. One of the unique offerings I stumbled upon was a Romanian fresh curd cheese. This cheese is made in the skin of a baby goat. No rennet or starter culture is used, only fresh, raw goat milk which is placed in the skin and hung for several days over which time the milk sours and thickens.
When I tasted the cheese I was taken aback by its pure milkiness and sweetness. I really had to get my mind around milk sitting in a skin, not quite the norm here. In addition the impregnated skin was lying on the table, bloated with cheese, full and hairy. I explained the sensitivity this may cause in Australia to the young lady who offered me the tasting. “Perfectly clean inside,” I’m told.
A tradition dating back hundreds of years she explained. This is what I love about cheese making – the history and the limitless form cheese can take. Another interesting find was the small, odd shaped sheep milk Pecorini cheeses covered in cheese mites! These are micro creatures that eat cheese. They impart a particular flavour to the cheese from the by product they produce which reminded me of the smell of kerosene. This was an amazing cheese to taste. The cheese mites were alive and kicking! Quite incredible.
If you stood back and looked at the display of cheeses on the cart you would swear the cart was moving as the mites crawled over the cheese. The cheese was surprisingly pleasant and sweet with just a hint of kero! It was explained to me that it is all about the mites. They flavour the cheese and make it unique. They also make you a little itchy but you get used to them after a while, I was told. One of the standouts at the show was a sheep milk Gorgonzola Dolce, locally made and studded with perfectly sweet walnuts. I take my cheese slowly but I don’t think I could ever have got enough of this one – perfection.
Also a fresh buffalo mozzarella which boasted a creamy, warm, sweet and milky centre. Forget chocolates, this is a soft centre that is truly unforgettable. Taste workshops are held in the beautiful churches and halls, full of history with their ornate ceilings and wall murals. The cheese makers conduct carefully orchestrated sessions where they discuss the history, nuances and techniques particular to their cheeses, often matching them with wines from the same region and at times introducing the local winemaker. Much discussion happens, and you realise the Italians know how to talk, even have the occasional argument but always ending in affirmation of a job well done as we share our knowledge.
Cheeses are matched with beverages often from the regions where the cheeses are made – reds, whites, sparkling, cider, grappa, whiskey and more recently I notice, beers. I have had the opportunity to present my cheeses at these workshops over the years with translations into Italian and French. My offerings have been scrutinised by the Italian experts while I nervously await their response. I discuss our milk quality, our vast land and the type of grazing our husbandry allows. There is always keen interest in what Australian cheese makers are doing and they are surprised by the sophistication of some of the Aussie offerings. The gastronomic experience in Bra is simple, traditional, historic and flavoursome.
I also discovered, the Salsiccia di Bra, a traditional product of braidese charcuterie. Salsiccia di Bra is a raw sausage that is made in a continuous wheel. It is normally eaten raw and is just splendid with a seasoning of cinnamon, cloves, coriander, pimento, nutmeg, mace, and caraway. The filling is obligatorily packed in natural lamb gut. The use of synthetic gut is forbidden. The product must be sold fresh and can be stored for a period of five days at the most in a cold store.
I bumped into Will Studd, a good cheese mate and shared a risotto dinner with him, with some freshly shaved white truffle from Alba (Tartufo di Alba). Will produced this aromatic nugget from a small jar. Of course, we also grated some locally produced Parmigiano Reggiano over our risotto and took a moment to ponder the joys of cheese.
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