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Digging into Cheese

Sep. 29, 2009

by Slow Food USA director of development Kate Krauss

I have the greatest job. While some of my friends attend conventions in windowless hotel ballrooms, I get to go to the international Slow Food festival called "Cheese." That’s right, it’s actually called Cheese. For 3 days, I sampled goat, sheep and cows-milk cheeses, saw demonstrations about different production techniques, and learned about the traditions of the craft—many of the cheesemakers I met have been working in the same meadows and traditions of generations of family members before them.

Cheese is held every other year in the small Italian town of Bra, where Slow Food got its start 20 years ago. Bra is one of those towns we Americans fantasize about when we think of visiting Italy. It’s surrounded by the rolling hills of the Italian Piedmont and full of charming old buildings and narrow cobblestone streets where local pastry shops sell gianduja, a delicious combination of chocolate and chopped hazelnuts, and where ubiquitous butcher shops offer Salsiccia di Bra, the town’s famous raw veal sausage.

Of course, Bra isn’t quite so sleepy during the Cheese festival, when over 150,000 people descend on the town to taste offerings from all over the world and to attend cheese-themed workshops and lectures. These are people who pack the room for a lecture referred to (with a straight face) as “The Joy of Natural Microflora.” That one was about the use of natural bacteria to turn milk into cheese, as opposed to the freeze-dried, packaged cultures commonly used in industrial cheesemaking. I loved every minute of it.

As a relative newcomer to Slow Food USA, I’ve watched as the organization has struggled with criticism for elitism, for promoting food that’s inaccessible to many people. We’ve worked hard to overcome that rap in the US by undertaking programs to help underserved communities and promote family farmers. And so while I was certainly excited to head to a cheese festival in Italy, I admit I went with a bit of a skeptical eye about the role of Slow Food. Wasn’t this just a fancy wine and cheese festival?

What I encountered was something altogether different. It felt like coming face to face with the soul of the slow food movement. Humble men and women coming together from places like Ethiopia, Argentina, and alpine France and Italy (not to mention Oregon, Wisconsin and California) to trade not only production techniques but also stories for how to preserve their way of life. These were people who gathered together in appreciation of good food, but their appreciation and passion didn’t end with taste. The Cheese attendees had a larger vision – to protect mountain villages and traditional pastoral practices; to preserve centuries-old products, customs and natural landscapes.

It was three days among my people. And the realization that my people are present in villages, languages, and traditions all over the world. What a great way to spend a weekend.

Anybody else out there attend Cheese? Or anything like it you’d like to share? You’re my people too, and I’d love to hear from you.

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