My friend Alex and I try to get away every year for a weekend and do something food related. This year we hemmed and hawed for quite a long time before deciding on visiting “Cheese”. “Cheese” is a Slow Food event held biannually in Bra, Italy and showcases milk in all its forms, but mostly cheeses. This year’s event hosted 270 000 visitors!
I took the train to the outskirts of Milan where Alex picked me up and we drove into the middle of the Piedmont area. On the way we chatted about the upcoming event, wondering what it would be like and what we could expect. Our first stop was in Grinzane Cavour, a small village perched on a hill where we enjoyed the view of the hills in the fog. From there we drove to La Morra, where we had our first taste of Piedmont- in the form of a hazelnut cake. The cake would not have been that special, if it hadn’t been for the roasted and very aromatic hazelnuts. Those roasted hazelnuts are sold all around the Piedmont and at a stand at “Cheese”, I bought some to take home. This year’s harvest, roasted and vacuum sealed. The woman standing next to me at the stand groaned an orgasmic “Mamma Mia” as she tasted them. That’s how good they are.
Our first and only dinner was at the Osteria la Torre in Cherasco. There we enjoyed our appetizers of stuffed zucchini flowers and a terrine of eggplant and mackerel followed by tiny ravioli filled with fresh goat cheese and topped with porcini mushrooms. We were almost to full to have dessert, but once we saw the hazelnut parfait on the menu we were sold. We ate them in complete silence and would have licked the plate if possible.
We ventured back to Cherasco two days later to photograph the pretty town in the early morning. Apart from the dog walkers, we were the only ones out and about.
We weren’t quite sure what to expect when we arrived at the fair on Friday morning. Some stands were still putting on the finishing touches, but all were ready to give out tastes of cheese. We started out with the international cheeses, moved on to cheeses from the Presidias, doubled back to more international chesses, and finished with Italian cheeses. We payed special attention to cheeses that we weren’t as familiar with, which meant we passed by most of the Swiss and French cheeses.
The whole fair was much larger than I had expected. Not only were there the cheese stands, there were food trucks, a Slow Wine bar where you could taste cheese and wine, stand with information about Slow Food and many workshops.
All in all, we probably tasted around 200 cheeses and there were plenty we didn’t get around to trying. It was very interesting to taste cheeses from different countries and learning about the cheese presidias. It was hard to decide which ones to take home with us. We went back and forth and tasted again and again, wanting to take a selection of cheeses home and especially ones we had never heard of before or ones we knew we just loved. In the end I returned with 6 cheeses. I could have brought back much more, but I guess that’s for next time.
- Oscypek, a Polish smoked cheese
- Sognakvitost, a hard Norwegian sheep cheese from Undredal
- Fårebrie, a Danish sheep brie (Knuthenlund)
- Goddess, a soft English washed rind cheese (White Lake Cheese)
- Cave ripened cheddar (The Fine Cheese Co.)
- Spanish Idiazábal (Poncelet Cheese)
We chatted with the people at the stands, they told us about their favorites, we talked about our cheese culture and then waved to them, when we passed by again and again. We had signed up for three workshops and all of them were interesting. The first was “From Flower to Cheese: the Produce of Mountain Meadows”, followed by “Irish Whiskey and Cheese … A New Era” and we finished with “Forms of Pasta Meet Forms of Milk”.
“From Flower to Cheese” was about pairing honey with cheese and how producers making mountain cheeses and mountain honeys are faced with the same difficulties. We tasted Madonie Provola from Sicily, Castel del Monte Canestra from Abruzzo, Tuma Macagn from Piedmont, and Heritage Bitto from Lombardy. The honey we tasted were rhododendron and astragalus honeys. The one I liked most was the very rare honey made by the Sicilian Black Bees, which was very delicate and light.
The most entertaining workshop was the second one we visited “Irish Whiskey and Cheese”. Seamus Sheridan of Sheridan Cheesemongers, talked about the cheese culture in Ireland and how until the 1970s Ireland didn’t really have one. His dry humor and the fact that he and the chairperson were friends, made for a very funny workshop. The Irish survived mostly on pork and potatoes, so cheese is a relatively new concept. Unlike the British Cheddars which are wrapped in lard soaked muslin, Irish use the Swiss way of washing their cheese with a brine. As we were also tasting Whiskey, by the end of the workshop, we were all laughing at about anything anyone said. Before we left, Seamus brought out his mom’s Christmas pudding which had been maturing since last Christmas, doused it in whiskey, set it afire and then had pieces of it served to us. It certainly was one of the best Christmas puddings I’ve ever tried. The cheese we tried were Fifteen Fields, Milleens, Coolea and Cashel Blue. I’m normally not one for blue cheeses, but, wow, this one was extremely good! I also enjoyed the whiskey tasting starting with the “everyday whiskey” Paddys Whiskey before moving on to the stronger Redbreast, Connemara und Cadenhead’s. Cadenhead’s brunt my lips and throat and made me gasp for air. No wonder one drinks whiskey on the rocks or with soda! Interesting for me was also the fact that Americans drink Scotch whiskey rather than Irish. The reason lies in the fact that after the Prohibition in the US, Ireland refused to sell Whiskey so the US turned to Scotland, who was willing to make a profit.
“Forms of Pasta Meet Forms of Milk” concentrated on the classic “Cacio e pepe“. We ate the dish four times with four different cheeses from various Italian regions and four different peppers. These were paired with two different pasta forms. It was interesting to learn that Roman soldiers ate pasta with their hands which is why pasta is cooked “al dente”. It had to be hard enough for them to grab it and not have it slip from their fingers. Also, it is better to eat pasta without ridges as the ridges cause uneven cooking and you’ll never have a perfectly cooked pasta.
Saturday afternoon, we decided to go and see Saluzzo, a town with a view. We walked through the cobbled streets, talking about the cheese event. listened to the beautiful voice of Ylamar’s lead singer and ended the visit with hazelnut gelato.