Cheese lovers from across the globe assembled for one of the biggest celebrations of the power of curdled milk in Bra, Italy recently. Another year for the Slow Food International biannual festival took tens of thousands of foodies to the province of Cuneo where the festival took over the whole town for four days.
Never one to miss such an opportunity, I was there, cocktail stick in hand, ready to sample the delights. The festival is dedicated to raw milk cheese and craft dairy product, but there is far, far more on offer. The theme ‘natural is possible’ was focused on pushing the agenda forward for raw milk cheeses, still much maligned and mistrusted by ill informed environmental health officials and a bewildered public. The incredible University of Gastronomic Sciences of Pollenzo announced its first Masters in raw milk & cheese to help a new generation continue to fight the good fight.
There was also a big focus on drawing attention to issues of environmental sustainability throughout the festival. Slow Food does an excellent job of putting large organisations under pressure to re-evaluate their ways of working, and is an awesome lobbyist to the EU. Golly, that EU sounds like something you’d really want to be a part of – helping Europe work together for a brighter, healthier and sustainable future. But that’s another post I’m obviously not going to bother writing.
Although cheesemaking runs in British blood, raw milk cheese is altogether rarer. The festival sought to shine a spotlight on this by featuring a number of British and Irish producers (mainly of pasteurised cheeses) at spotlight events and several producers were available on the stalls strewn through the town. It was a pleasure for me to try a version of Sparkenhoe‘s Red Leicester that was more mature than that which we normally see locally – nice to go 1100km for a taste of home!! Plus there was a British cheese & Barolo pairing session and other guided tastings spanning the best of the British Isles. Raw Milk Stichelton was heavily (and rightly) featured, whose campaign to have their cheese, made with raw milk, be recognised as Stilton continues. Slow Food has established a Presidium for Stichelton and their campaign, but the consortium of Stilton producers and even the British government still refuses to recognise the product under the Stilton PDO. Stichelton are based on the Welbeck Estate, where I visited the School of Artisan Food this weekend.
And British Gelato
As ever, Leicester’s own Gelato Village were also there, this year featuring on the programme of the Inalpi Butter Free House. They were showcasing two gelati, a Shropshire Prune Damson & Butter gelato served on Bisbrooke Artisan village sourdough, and a more unusual anchovy & butter gelato this time served with Bisbrooke’s turmeric and fennel sourdough. The innovative combinations, tastes and textures were savoured by the full house at the Inalpi tent.
Cheese is really an experience all to itself, with the sleepy town of Bra truly brought to life with a global cocktail of flavour. Throughout the streets vendors sell their wares, children play games which often give them new insight into the world of dairy, and there are even pens showcasing the very best of the regional livestock. Of course The Boy and I weren’t going to miss the chance to sample some beers – with the best local examples for my money coming from Sta Brau.
Italian Craft Beer
As I have commented on in previous years, the Italian craft beer scene continues to grow and grow. There was an increase in breweries presenting in the street food square and all manner of small producers in between around the town. Italian brewers are still tending to focus on the styles that Italian drinkers are used to – mainly blonde and amber ales – but some are becoming more ambitious now and experimenting with IPAs, stouts and more. I even tried one English Summer Ale but I confess I don’t really know what it was or what they were trying to achieve. It was most refreshing though. However, I still bristle slightly at the large serve being 400ml and then they only fill your glass up two thirds of the way for 4 or 5 Euros. Perhaps I’d be more amenable if the darn pound was worth more. But that continues to be another story, doesn’t it?
The Boy and I also enjoyed a session on IPAs with the Firestone Walker brewer Matt Brynildson. This highlighted the growing interest in Italy for these styles and examined how the use of, and access to, hops has been changing over the last decade. We were extremely pleased to have a sample of Union Jack, a beer which I have not had the pleasure of tasting since we last visited California over 5 years ago – where coincidentally we had won a Firestone Walker pint glass at Pint Night in 99 Bottles of Beer, Santa Cruz, which still earns its keep happily in our house. That beer is as I remember a true West Coast IPA to taste – rounded and bursting with citrus and tropical notes, with an almost honeyed mouthfeel and perfectly balanced intense bitterness. Fandabbydosey. How DO you spell that? You know what I mean.
Global Cheese Experience
We sampled a bewildering variety of cheeses. Raw milk Alpine sheep cheese that had been matured for 48 months for an incredibly pungent yet creamy flavour. The almost plastic textured Slovakian cheese which we enjoyed whilst being serenaded by a traditional Slovakian flute player (obviously, of course that would happen). A beautiful selection of cured meats, the unavoidable Parmigiano Reggiano marketing machine. More than can possibly be taken in, even over the course of the two days we spent there.
There isn’t much more that can be said excepting that you must try and experience it for yourself. Sadly we had limited rucksack space for our flight home and a long journey which precluded bringing any cheese back. I got some truffles though, obviously. A food lovers paradise, and one which contains important messages for us all about the future of food.
Don’t miss the salsiccia di Bra. Cruda or Cotto, as you prefer.