Known across the world as simply “Cheese,” the Bra Cheese Festival in Piedmont, Italy is one of the biggest cheese affairs in the world. Organized by Slow Food and held for five days every two years in mid-September, the event draws more than 150,000 turophiles who turn the village of Bra into a pedestrian-only celebration of all things food. And since I first learned about the event in 2005, it’s been on my bucket list to attend.
This year was my lucky year, as I organized my biannual international cheese tour for members of Wisconsin Cheese Originals around the Bra Festival date. Our group of 20 arrived on Saturday to a day of perfect weather and split up into mini-groups, each accompanied by our own translators and graduates of the University of Gastronomic Sciences. We set off with an agenda to taste rare cheeses, drink local beer, enjoy local wine, and basically eat for the next seven hours straight.
Now, while the event’s overall aim is to promote regional Italian cheesemakers and local cheeses that are either in danger of extinction or exploitation via industrial commercialization, there are cheeses featured from around the world that you’ll never have the opportunity eat unless they are handed to you on the tip of a knife by a cheesemaker at Bra.
First up was a cheese called Macagn, a whole raw cow’s milk made in the mountains of the Piedmont region. Cheesemaker Gino Garbaccio gave us a tasting of the cheese made at three different elevations, at two different ages. At just one week old, this cheese has more flavor than many cheeses I’ve tasted at six months, and at three months, it felt, looked and tasted mature.
The neat thing about Macagn is that it is made at every milking. My handy dandy “2013 Slow Food edition of Italian Cheeses” says this probably came about because of the need to take advantage of the milk’s natural temperature. Straw-yellow in color, the cheese contains scattered eyes and turns golden as it ages.
The other thing about Macagn is that each of the nine cheesemakers who make it use different make procedures and milk from animals on a variety of pastures at different elevations. We learned the Slow Food Presidium is working with these cheesemakers to draft production regulations to establish a uniformity and to give this summer mountain cheese a distinctive personality of its own. Perhaps the next time I visit “Cheese,” Macagn will be even better!
Just down the street, we encountered our next rarity, Montebore, a Piedmont-based cow and sheep’s mixed milk cheese shaped like a wedding cake. The cheese has a long history, dating back to 300 A.D. It was made continually until 1982, when the last cheesemaker decided to stop production. Thanks to the Slow Food Presidium, the unique cheese made a comeback in 1999, when two cheesemakers learned the secret of making the ancient cheese from Carolina Bracco, the last of the Montebore cheesemakers.
Montebore is made with 75 percent cow’s milk and 25 percent sheep’s milk. The curd is cut with a wooden curd knife and placed in molds called “ferslin”, and then turned and salted. Three cheeses of decreasing diameter are removed from the molds, and allowed to stand for four to five hours. They are then washed with warm, slightly salted water and left to mature, one atop the other, for a period ranging from seven days to two months.
At one month old, the cheese tasted fresh and spongy. Yum. We also tasted it at 2 months old (mushroomy), 3 months old (clean and complex) and at 5 months old, which was beyond its prime. The rind had darkened to a soft grey color and smelled extremely of ammonia. If you ever get a chance to eat this cheese, I’d recommend the 3-month age.
Next up was the rare Morlacco di Vacca Burlina, made in the Italian provinces of Treviso, Belluno and Vicenza. The cheese is crafted from the milk of Burlina cows, a highly endangered breed (there are only 270 left in the world) that have the unfortunate characteristic of not giving much milk. Farmers breeding the cows are currently working with the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Italy to encourage more farmers to use the cows and save the breed.
Morlacco is a soft, uncooked, low-fat cheese made from milk from the evening milking, skimmed by allowing the cream to rise to the top, to which whole milk from the following morning’s milking is added. The cheesemaking technique has remained the same over the centuries. The milk is heated to 38-42 degrees Celsius and coagulated with liquid calf’s rennet. The curd is cut up into walnut-sized lumps, left to stand for a short while, and then transferred to wicker baskets. The whey is allowed to drain. The cheeses are then salted and carefully turned over several times a day for 12 days. They are ready to eat at about 2 weeks, but can mature up to 5 months. We tried a cheese at both 2 weeks and 3 months, and both were outstanding. If I could get this cheese in the United States, I’d eat it every day.
While we tasted dozens of cheeses throughout the day, the last, but not least cheese I’d like to mention is San Ste, named for the patron saint of Liguaria, Saint Steven. While the cheese was made for centuries, it went extinct sometime in the 20th Century. Caseificio Val D’Aveto dairy revived the traditional cheese, making it with milk from Bruno Alpina and Cabannina cows that graze in the local pastures in the province of Genoa.
To make the cheese, raw milk is heated to 35 degrees Celsius and inoculated with powdered calf’s rennet. It is then left to coagulate for 35 minutes. Next, the mass is cut into rice-sized curd, collected in a cloth and place on a board, where it is kneaded. Coarse salt is added and the mixture is transferred to forms, which are then pressed to drain off the whey. Next, the rounds are removed and soaked in brine for two days to harden the find. Finally, San Ste is moved to a damp, cool cellar and aged for at least 60 days, where it is regularly turned and oiled.
Cheesemaker Silvio Cella was extremely kind to us, and led us through a tasting of San Ste at 2 months, 4 months and 8 months. At each stage, the cheese just got better. The 2 month-cheese was more yellow in color than the 8-month cheese, as it had been made in the summer when the cows were on pasture, and the 8-month cheese was made during the winter when the cows were eating hay. However, the butterfat from each of the ages stuck heartily to my tongue. Yum.
Cella was also kind enough to give us a sample of his company’s raw-milk yogurt, as well as an aged ricotta-type cheese named Prescinseua that is made from cream instead of whey. I had never had anything like it, but it is well-known in Genoa. It’s made by allowing cow’s milk to sour, and once coagulated, filtered through a cloth. The cheese is traditionally eaten by sprinkling with sugar and served at the table. It is also used in the kitchen, especially for Easter cakes.
Over the course of 7 hours, I learned about and tasted more than a dozen cheeses I never knew existed. Thank you to Slow Food and the village of Bra for hosting such an amazing event. I hope to visit you again someday.
Next up: visiting the Beppino Occelli cheese aging caves in Valcasotto, Italy.
All photos by Uriah Carpenter.