The city of Bra has a population of 30,000 people. During the Slow Food festival, this swells to 300,000. Ten times the normal number of people fill the streets. On Saturday morning, this showed, as the buses ferrying arrivals from the expansive car parks in fields nearby, were running at full capacity.
Perhaps the most important meeting of the day, for anyone from the USA, was the very first session – Raw Milk Cheese in the USA.
Raw milk cheese is cheese made from milk that is taken straight from the animal, into the cheesemaking process. Occasionally the cheesemaker will cool and store it briefly, but there is no further processing before cheese making begins.
Raw milk cheese allows an expression of flavor unique to the environment in which it is made. To quote the recent book by Bronwen Percival “Cheese is milk made knowable”. This ‘Taste of Place’, or terroir, is available when all of the contributions of the land are able to express themselves, from the unique mix of grasses and flowers in the fields, to the unique microbial populations which process milk components to create these flavors (and which are removed by pasteurization). A raw milk cheese will therefore be different and unique from place to place, season to season and year to year. If we want to maintain the production of unique cheeses, and customers still show an interest in unique cheese, then the use of raw milk must be preserved.
A discussion of raw milk cheese and the USA, almost always focusses on the topic of safety. There is a justifiable concern about raw milk cheese and the presence of dangerous bacteria. This is the obsession of federal and state health inspectors: everything must be sanitized and clean. The entire panel wanted to educate these officials in the production of raw milk cheese, and this was the first of two proposed solutions to the free-up raw milk cheese making.
Farmstead/artisanal raw milk cheese makers are in a unique position, since they themselves produce and know the quality of their milk (and livestock). Clean healthy animals, leads to clean healthy milk, which leads to clean quality cheese, so a small producer who knows their herd, should not have to pasteurize their milk. Compare this to the giant producer, who gathers milk from many farms, and has no knowledge of its quality or danger points – this is clearly a situation where pasterusatio for safety makes sense.
A second solution was proposed by Giuseppe Licitra, who mentioned that 75% of PDO cheeses in Italy are made from raw milk, compared to only 38% of USA cheesemakers who even make such cheeses. By not applying blanket rules across an industry, and specifying a USA-oriented ‘Protected Designation of Origin’ for different cheese types, which would demand adherence to strict rules of production, then this could provide the legal cover for makers to finally make young raw milk cheese.
After this insightful start to the day, it was on to roaming the cheese stalls before a final tasting of the day.
Bra is jammed full of European cheese, but several USA-made cheese were represented. For example, Roguie Creamery, Uplands Cheese, Cyrprus Grove, Meadow Creek, and Marieke Gouda. This is not a place for the small American producers – yet – but wouldn’t it be nice to see some of the Vermont artisan makers over here?
There were long stalls for countries (Slovenia and Belgium being the most surprising), different affineurs, and importers, all showing, tasting and selling their best raw milk cheeses. From fresh water buffal caciotta, to massive wheels of Comté, and aged tomme’s which honestly, were completely dried out, cracked and looked completely inedible – it was all there.
The final hurrah of the evening was a Barley Wine and cheese pairing. Barley wine is really a strong beer, made from fermenting grains in addition to the hops and malts. They are usually over 10% abv, and the classics will have a sweetness to them. The panel consisted of beer experts, whoc had been asked to pair 5 Balrye r wines with cheese,as lthough they had not tasted the cheese before hand. And meant it was a bit of hit and miss for the pairings. The star pairing weas the Xyauyu Oro from Baladin, which had a sherry taste and paired beautifully with Roquefort.
After we were turned out into the Bra sunshine, it was time for a dinner of local Plin pasta (think small ravioli) and a bottle of the local Barolo.