Posted on October 26th, 2011
If you decide to have kids, make sure they come out speaking Italian. As children lean over painted green and blue fences to marvel at the sheep and goats, exclamations of “Que bello!” add romance to any situation. There were many such toddlers running about this year’s Slow Food Cheese festival in Bra, Italy, as autumn was calmly on its way, heralded by comfortable days and cool nights. Cow bells chimed on the September air, cobblestoned streets moved conversation between artisans and visitors, and the ring of wine and beer glasses raised to toast the gathering sounded as tiny dogs sat in laps and trotted at the ends of leashes. Most importantly, there was a delicate scent of cheese everywhere.
It was overcast and drizzly the Sunday of my arrival, but that didn’t impede the hordes of the cheese-obsessed, young and old. A giant plastic snail, the symbol of Slow Food and ironically placed right next to the artisan beer tent, greeted everyone at one corner of the fair. Stands under white tents were filled with cheesemakers and affineurs selling their cheeses and offering samples, lining the streets where cars ordinarily passed. Every two years Cheese and the city center are one and the same as Bra is home to Slow Food headquarters.
One Bra resident admitted that her opinion about Slow Food and this event was complex. She thought that the influx of tourists was good for the small city; restaurants are very busy during the festival’s five days and as Niccolò, worker for affineur MonS told me, all the hotels were booked so he slept on a rug. Meanwhile, my Bra resident also found that the festival did not attract a diverse crowd. Over the years she had observed a population of wealthy tourists coming to taste the cheeses with little regard for the artisan and farmstead cheesemakers. Her sense was that these swarms of cheese enthusiasts would forget to engage the producers, grab some samples and leave without a thank you. Even Fanny, Business Manager at MonS, spoke to me of the mealtime rush: visitors reaching over the counters outright in the midst of her preparations. Nevertheless, Fanny’s genuine smile shone with her excitement at simply being at Cheese and Niccolò ended up spending the last night in the hotel’s suite.
If one angle of the festival is about generating cash and stuffing one’s face with high quality cheese, another can be summarized by Marilena of Eu Barlet, “[Slow Food’s Cheese] gives a face to the small cheesemaker.” She and her husband are but one of hundreds of cheesemakers working for over ten, twenty, thirty years with traditional methods high in the Italian Alps southwest of Bra. Similarly, Matteo and Gaia Chindemi are a young couple living north of Bra in the mountains overlooking Lago Maggiore. Gaia and Matteo have benefited from the Slow Food spotlight. Featured in its magazine, Capre Chindemi is a farmstead that inspires the repopulation of abandoned mountains and a stewardship of the land. In the middle of conversation, Gaia paused mid-sentence to look over my shoulder and to breathe in wonder, “There are so many tiny dogs, here!” If tiny lap dogs are an unconfirmed symbol of the financially elite, the vendors have definitely noticed to whom they cater.
By the end of Sunday the clouds were breaking, colors evolving from shades of gray to salmon. I had ingested more cheeses than I could remember, I had savored potash yogurt from Kenya and I had discovered a 15-month, raw cow’s milk named Pleasant Ridge Reserve made by Upland Farm in Wisconsin. I had also realized, in spite of my conviction that the French rule the cheese world, that English cheeses are a taste to be reckoned with.
The following day Bra awoke to clear, deep blue skies and sunshine, as if to reward its exhausted workers for a week of frenetic fromagerie. A lady of a certain age rode past me on her bike, cell phone in hand, punctuating the idea of melding old cheese tradition with our modern world. With that thought in mind, I sat down in a room with intricately painted walls and ceiling but far too small for the number of attendants, to listen to The Network of European Cheesemakers. As English, French, and Italian translators helped us through head sets, the speakers articulated the problems that European farmstead cheesemakers have with E.U. sanitary regulations and the efforts these small cheesemakers have made to develop a unified network and to write a European Sanitation Guide for Small Cheesemakers.
The difficulties of small cheesemakers, as illustrated by this talk, seemed to pivot on the very fact that they are small. Governments focus on industrial producers because while farmstead cheesemakers are many, they lack the financial pull, market weight and organization of their industrial counterparts. Industrial producers can afford to use powerful, well-organized lobbyists to push their preferred regulations. Thus, in spite of the test of time, small cheesemakers’ practices are questioned, traditional methods and materials are questioned, raw milk is prohibited in certain countries, safety and sanitation is questioned, and control systems are not adapted to the small-scale industry.
While the final point is very relevant, I think it’s also normal to question practices no matter how long they have proven sufficient. Medicinal techniques and scientific theories are questioned in order to progress, so it is only normal to question food processing as well. In my opinion, the real difficulties posed to small cheesemakers, as illustrated by the talk and by my farm apprenticeships are: First, those making the rules are often not well informed of the true levels of risk posed by traditional technique and cheesemaking materials. In many countries, for instance, affinage on wood boards and in natural caves is prohibited to prevent Listeria monocytogenes. While Listeria can be found everywhere (pasteurized cheese – Del Bueno in November 2010, April and September 2011; spinach – Lancaster Foods LLC in June 2010; cantaloupes – Rocky Ford in September 2011), natural, clean, porous surfaces have a micro flora and fauna that act as a line of defense against harmful pathogen. Without this natural defense, cheesemakers are required to disinfect daily, killing all bacteria, molds, and yeasts – even the ones necessary to make cheese. In order to repopulate their milk with these beneficial micro-organisms, cheesemakers must purchase freeze dried ferments that provide the advantage of creating a cheese that is always the same, but a cheese that lacks all particularity normally associated with its location and environment. This is an important part of the discussion in the raw milk debate. Similar to natural affinage caves and boards, properly handled raw milk can be safer than pasteurized because of its bacterial defense. When pasteurized, milk is like a wound on a person with a weak immune system: open and susceptible to all harmful microbes.
The second hardship I perceive is that the means of cheesemaking as required by regulation makes cheesemaking at a small scale prohibitive because the proposed equipment is very expensive. For example, as auto-control of all actions in the modern cheesemake is necessary, it is most efficient for a small producer to have tools that record environmental factors automatically. Since the small farmstead does not have the financial liberty to pay an extra employee to track temperature, humidity, the time of heating, cutting, the amount of rennet, and so on, and because this automatic equipment is not available to the small producer at a small rate, the farmstead cheesemaker is faced with a disproportionally heavier financial burden than the industrial cheesemaker.
The third trouble is that regulatory bodies may fail to take into account the advantages of working at a small scale. Rather than anonymous workers taking care of one small part of the cheesemaking process, perhaps ignoring the other parts, and failing to ever meet a consumer, the farmstead cheesemaker deals with short circuits of distribution. She will feed and care for the animals that produce the milk that she takes to the cheesemake to turn into cheese that she sells often directly to her customers. Involvement in every step of the process ensures easy traceability of product, direct consumer feedback, and an awareness of the potential problems before they arise. In general, current policy seeks mass disinfection to cover up unwise food practices rather than encouragement of wise practices to ensure wholesome food production at any scale.
In response to the farmstead cheesemaking struggle, as recently as 2006, German and French cheese and dairy livestock associations began a dialogue. In as little as five years, 12 countries, 23 associations, and 13,000 cheesemakers are now represented in a European farmstead cheese network. Their objectives are the preservation of European cheese diversity, the identification of common problems, the exchange of information and opinion, the redaction of a joint statement of purpose, the unified representation of interests, and the execution of projects. The talk ended on this positive note, encouraging attendants to return for Slow Food’s Cheese in Bra in two years as they planned to have finished their E.U.-approved Sanitation Guide for Small Cheesemakers at that time.
After savoring a selection of cheeses specially prepared for the talk, I left to purchase a few to take home. In my bag I collected from Neil’s Yard Dairy: Kirkham’s Lancashire, Sparkenhoe Red Leicester, and Stichelton. Andy of The Fine Cheese Company also sold me a gooey slice of Stinking Bishop. The only non-U.K. cheese I took back to France was the ever-classic hunk of Parmigiano Reggiano, which I ate like cake. I also said good-bye to the friends I had met over this last year who were attending the event. The cheese world is a small world, even for a small producer. As for me, I hope that one day I will be able to come back to Bra’s Slow Food Cheese festival. I hope to come back to a stronger European farmstead cheesemakers’ network and I hope to be able to say that there exists a similar network for North America, because when I come back, I hope to taste more U.S. and Canadian farmstead cheeses.