Bra is a self contained town with enough of its own industry to mean it doesn’t rely on Slow Food for its trade and existence. It existed before Carlo Petrini started the movement and it continues to maintain its independence. That said though, I doubt even in Italy it would have quite the same amount of good food and restaurants if it weren’t for the Slow Food movement having its headquarters here. Then, every 2 years the town puts on a homage to all things Cheese and quite literally the entire town dedicates itself to the promotion of cheese. Talks and tastings are held in some of the baroque buildings that form the older centre of Bra, its streets and piazzas become a market for cheese makers (particularly those who Slow Food have designated worthy of Presidia status – a protection for a highly artisan or unusual cheese that is in danger of dying out) and cheese maturers or retailers such as my erstwhile colleagues Neal’s Yard Dairy.
Neal’s Yard Dairy has been selling cheese in Bra since 2003. Randolph first visited the fair 2 years before that to help out a friend, Ari Weinzweig of Zingermans who had been due to give a talk there and was unable to get a flight post 9/11. He was simply struck by the unique atmosphere of the place and the abundance of interesting cheeses and people there – completely unlike any trade show or food show held in the UK. The town is entirely welcoming to its huge influx of visitors too with local shops getting behind the idea and theming their displays around cheese for the duration of the fiera. If this was the UK, much as I hate to talk my country down, there would be groups of people moaning about parking and rubbish and the disruption to their daily routines.
When we took the first stand in 2003 we noticed further benefits too. Italians of all walks of life have a much more extensive vocabulary to describe food than the Brits, they are interested and keen to try new things and pretty forthright about saying what they think be it good or bad. For a shop that values feedback, these comments on our cheeses are hugely interesting. There was also the minor consideration that as a place to meet and socialise with wholesale customers, the atmosphere of Bra can’t be bettered. Maybe it’s all that Italian Dolce Vita, or ready access to Barolo, or the cafe society but people drop by and chat in a much more relaxed way than they ever do at any trade fair in the UK or USA and simply by enjoying a coffee together and having a chat, great ideas can spring up in a completely natural and unpressured way.
This year was my first year out there as a cheesemaker. Before leaving NYD, Jason Hinds who had basically been my boss, asked if I’d join them on the stand as I’m an Italian speaker and, more to the point, I suspect, if I was there, my Italian speaking and absolute Trojan parents would be more likely to come along too and help explain and taste out cheeses to the Italian public. As such, of course, there is a different perspective to the one you have as a cheesemonger. I particularly wanted to know what they thought of the cheese and had a sneaky feeling they might well like it. This proved to be the case. I was waiting for people to come back with comments for improvements, over salted, too strong etc but didn’t really hear much of that. On the contrary I did hear that pretty much everyone liked it. To say that was a big pat on the back would be understating it really. Of course the batches had been deliberately selected by Bronwen and the buying team to appeal to the Italian palate (a bit more adventurous and raucous than the UK) but between her selection and our cheesemaking, we made them happy.
With that established, the next thing I enjoyed while out there was meeting former colleagues and the wider family of the NYD network. Mateo and Andy from Jasper Hill in Vermont were out there with their families, Joe Schneider and his Stichelton team were on the stand (naturally), Caroline and Will who make Stawley, Julie Cheyney formerly of Tunworth, Kate Arding who I worked with back in my early NYD days and who is now part of the Culture Magazine team, Val Bines, Jamie Montgomery, Mary Holbrook… I could go on and on. It is a bit like in part a great big reunion of a lot of people you really want to chat to and you sell cheese and talk about your different cheeses altogether. Yes it’s definitely an occasion for the cheese geek but as such it’s very rewarding and interesting.
And have I mentioned the eating out possibilities yet? Not only is this Italy but it’s Piedmont, widely regarded as one of the best areas of Italy for food and wine and everyone is putting on the classic dishes over this weekend: vitello tonnato (veal with a tuna emulsion basically), vegetable souffles, fresh tajarin (thin tagliatelle) with butter and sage, hand pinched ravioli (agnolotti del plin), carne cruda (thinly chopped raw rose veal with olive oil), salsiccia di bra (raw rose veal sausages – seriously don’t knock it if you haven’t tried it they are addictive), meat braised in Barolo and panna cotta. And then there’s Caffe Converso, the ONLY place in Bra to get your coffee and pastries with its wood panelled walls and the little shop next door selling home made chocolates, nougat and their own chestnut cream and upmarket Nutella.
All this and the chance to learn about other cheeses and try new things too. The Strada dei Presidii is the road along which the endangered cheeses are displayed. This ranges from the weird and wonderful like Swedish goats cheese, smoked cheese from Poland, to the more recognisable like Bitto an Italian mountain cheese like an aged and drier Gruyere or Sbrinz and finally Somerset Cheddar represented by Montgomerys, Keens and Westcombe. Cheddar may not initially seem an endangered cheese but given that it is ubiquitously used as a name for hard block cheese these days, the Somerset Cheddar boys are claiming the name back for those still making cheese in the original county of Somerset and following an old fashioned and traditional recipe.
For anyone with even a passing interest in all things Cheese that hasn’t discovered it yet, this fair is worth the trip. See you there in 2013!
For another perspective on the Cheese event and more pics too have a look at Justine’s blog littlemisslocal.com