First and foremost, I apologize in my lapse in posting. Perhaps it is really only my mum that keeps track of the days (hours, minutes, seconds…) between posts, but trust me she knows better than me. Sometimes, she is the only reason the post goes live at all. Coming home from Work Away, I had a few free days before reuniting with my friends and heading off on a study trip to the Czech Republic (post coming). After a week away, I returned to immediately be greeted by my friend Dani. She spent just a day and a half (literally an hour after I arrived to Bra so did she, and left 36 hours later) with me as she traveled through Europe celebrating the end of her two years with the Peace Corps in Africa. Then I spent a couple days in bed sick, before the weekend’s festivities of Cheese. And my excuse for the last four days since Cheese, I had to go back to school (like a chump).
This weekend was four days of crazy happiness. It was the 20th anniversary of the Cheese festival here in Bra. A Slow Food event that happens every two years, the town literally explodes for it. Originally started to bring attention to raw milk cheese and natural cheese producers, today it continues the tradition. If you know me at all, you know I was literally in heaven. With an expectation of over 100 producers and 300,000 visitors, the town was insanity.
For any St. Maries kids (or friends that got dragged home with us for a Labor Day Weekend), if you imagine the craziness of Paul Bunyan Days entirely focused on cheese, you’d get pretty close. The festival goes from Friday through Monday (progressively getting crazier with each passing day). Filled with many, MANY samples (sorry digestive system), demonstrations, conferences on the importance on raw milk cheese production and natural cheese. And of course more than a few sightings of my bestie, Carlo Petrini. I thought I loved Slow Fish, but this is bigger and even better, its cheese.
Before this event, I will admit I knew extremely little about what even raw milk or natural cheese were. Raw milk cheese is honestly exactly as it sounds, cheese made with milk directly from the animal. There is no pasteurization. Now this is somehow scary for people, but once you understand it and taste it, you’ll get it. Pasteurization kills bacteria, yes. But it is also killing off all the natural flavors of the milk, the flavors of the terroir where the animal was raised. Raw milk cheese is closely monitored and healthy.
It is much more accepted and common in Europe than in the US. The US Food & Drug Administration states that raw milk cheese can be produced but must be aged for more than 60 days. That is what they see as enough time for any dangerous bacteria to die off. However, this takes any fresh raw milk cheeses out of the question. Raw milk cheese producers are working and lobbying for changes on the law, but as it sits that is where the US stands for now. If you can try raw milk cheese, its incredible!
Natural cheeses are another tradition that Slow Food has created initiatives to protect. Natural means using a natural starter. Many producers these days use artificial or synthetic starters. Again getting away and changing what cheese should actually taste like. The festival was able to display the differences in starters, whether animal or vegetable rennet. It was an incredible week of lessons about cheese all across the board for me.
Overall, there is nothing better than waking up and walking down the street and your entire town smelling of cheese (ok there are probably better things for people who are lactose intolerant, but doubtful). The festival is split into sections, the Italian market, the International market, Slow Food Presidia, craft beer, street food, Slow Food house, biodiversity house, and the general booths (UNISG, Slow Food bookstore, gelato making shop, cocktail bar, etc). It has completely taken over the town. I am like a kid in a candy shop.
Not to mention that the town is filled with producers from around the world, including (finally) American Cheddar, friends! Now I know most of you are thinking, “Mols you live in the country known for the greats like Parmigiano Reggiano, Mozzarella di Bufala, and Pecorino.” Ya, I know. But Mac n’Cheese isn’t the same without cheddar or American cheese. And a grilled cheese doesn’t have the same comforting qualities without it. I have bought more cheese than I ever imagined I would. I’ve said before if I needed to live on one kind of food for the rest of my life it would be cheese, well now that may be coming true.
I love these Slow Food events, not only for the ability to taste amazing foods from around the world, but the opportunity to meet people. The networking opportunities this weekend have been amazing. From meeting alumni to just foodies from around the world. Throughout the weekend, I have been working with the university to run a few tours through producers for visitors. My Friday tour right out of the gate was with a group of Americans on something called a Cheese Journey. Apparently there is legitimately a company based in the US that runs cheese tours around the world. Believe it or not, I was in love with them real fast. My group was filled with cheese makers, mongers, and lovers alike. We had a great time!
After spending my Friday trying more cheeses than my body wanted to handle, I finished it off with a few friends at the craft beer tent and early back home. Saturday started early with me at the first conference of the day, Raw in America. Absolutely captivating with information about the state of raw milk cheese production and regulations in the US. Moderated by a member of my tour the day before, I was in good company. It was also a great opportunity to meet top producers from the US.
Saturday was a lunch of more cheese samples (back for a third, fourth, or fifth time to my favorites) and an afternoon of another tour. This time I was taking a group of Scottish students from another food university on a tour of large versus small producers. I think it was as interesting for me as it was for my group participants. The tour was posed as a challenge to find the good in the big producers because Slow Food can be misunderstood that all that is big, is bad. It was wonderful to see that you can produce large amounts of products, that are good, clean and fair.
After my tour, I had a gelato date with a friend at a producer that made it from fresh raw sheep milk. It was unlike any gelato I had every tried (and I’ve had a lot of gelato). When we were finished, the crowds had exploded and for those of us who live here, I think we all decided to go home. Sunday, I was up early to see producers as soon as they opened before the crowds got too thick. It was a lovely chance to actually talk with producers and take some pictures. I went back home midday to rest a bit before returning for a workshop.
Mid afternoon, I attended a workshop and tasting on the craft beer revolution’s movement from Germany to the United States. An interesting look at why and how the craft beer creations took off and tasting a few. Coming from Boise, a city with more than a few breweries I love being able to understand the creation and decision to enter into the craft system. We grabbed some street food afterwards, then we went our separate ways home.
Monday was the last day of Cheese and everyone was a bit ready to have our city back to ourselves. It was one more day of working for the university. The last day of the event we were planning a type of disco soup event. Disco soup is a Slow Food idea that takes scraps that would become food waste and turning them into a free meal. Myself and about 7 or 8 others, spent the day talking with producers, collecting extra pieces of cheese that didn’t sell or wouldn’t be taken home, and creating an aperitivo for the community at the end of the day.
It was the perfect end to a weekend of fun and more cheese than I have eaten in my whole life. I love the opportunities that this university and experience in Bra provides us. Its crazy to me that I survived for 23 years not knowing there was a town that threw a party for four days to celebrate cheese. A perfect end of the summer holiday and introduction back into classes. Only three more months in this cozy sleepy town of Bra, surrounded by crazy foodies. Time to stay present in every experience, and drink it all in.
Today is the first of three posts coming at you this week (you’re welcome mum). Next up, a recap of our study trip to Moravia, Czech Republic during the first week of September. Then, a bit of a reflection piece about getting my official residency and a perspective on being American. A week of updates, and getting back on track.
Happy fall my friends, welcome back, and enjoy.
Until then, stay hungry!
-The Very Hungry Traveler