Inside Bra: The Cheese Capital Of Italy

Bra Italy Slow Food's Cheese Event

One of the more interesting aspects of living in Bra, Italy is the food. You might call it a gastronomic microclimate – the Braidese are accustomed to a certain quality of cuisine. There are supermarkets, yes and even discount stores; it’s hard to avoid them; yet this small provincial town of 30,000 has a disproportionate number of butchers (11) as well as numerous bakeries, specialty stores, cafés and restaurants. It is incredibly hard to eat badly around here – you have to go out of your way to do it. For all the beautiful castles and mountains that dot the countryside, it’s food and wine that draws people into this pocket of Italy.

Bra was once a sleepy town, until the University of Gastronomic Sciences got things going in nearby Pollenzo. The town changed and continues to change, with several hundred students living here. Alumni stick around to open up shops or work in restaurants or the wine industry. Bra has a definitive international outlook now – you hear English, German, Chinese and a number of other languages in the street.

Locals work in small businesses, at the hospital or commute to Turin, and farming remains a key industry. On certain days, if the wind is right, you realize how close the famed Razza Piedmontese cows really are. The Alps to the west impede a lot of the area’s bad weather and so the area enjoys four strong seasons. Locals are quiet, kind and inquisitive.

Cheese, Bra Italy
Jesse Dart

Brought Together By Cheese

Cheese or Slow Cheese or Cheese 2017, or whatever you choose to call it, brings a number of things to this bucolic spot every two years. For one, it brings tourists. Hoards of them, crushing for space to try a piece of Cheddar, a crumb of Blue cheese or a chunk of just-made Mozzarella. It brings cheesemakers from all over the world; Oregon, Vermont, Devon, Calabria, Veneto, the Sahara, and nearly every country in Europe is represented. Perhaps most of all, it brings money. Cafés that rarely see a full house during a normal week are full to capacity with a queue of people waiting to use the toilet.

Slow Food, based in Bra, manages events very well and has learned what makes them successful. This most recent event was the most successful Cheese ever — bringing 300,000 people to Bra for the four-day event. I can attest to the near crushing amount of people on Saturday and Sunday, two perfect days of sun and warm temperatures.

The festival itself is set up all around town, and a shuttle service ferries people in from remote parking lots, some as far away as Alba, 15km to the east. The streets are filled, literally, with cheese.

Emma Young, a Mon’s employee here from London and regular contributor to Cheese Connoisseur, says, “Working [at the Mons stand] in Bra was a new experience for me; [I was] seeing the festival from an entirely different perspective after my first visit as a member of the public. Watching so many people enjoying what we were presenting them with was so rewarding. It was great to see such a huge variety of products, which gave even the smallest producers exposure to the world of cheese.”

This year, Slow Food made the choice that the event would be raw milk only – a bold move, yet one that seems to have paid off. It was so successful, that a group of affineurs has proposed a course in the production of raw milk cheese at the University of Gastronomic Sciences.

Bra Italy, Slow Food's Event
Jesse Dart

This Year’s Festivities

There was a tent for affineurs, a tent for only Italian-produced cheese and rows of tents for presidia cheeses from all across Italy and Europe. Here we found examples of excellent small-batch cheeses difficult to find elsewhere.
On the weekend, it seemed more people were interested in tasting as many cheeses as possible, rather than hearing about how the cheese was made, what the cows eat, the different breeds of cow, sheep or goats. The plethora of cheese lovers seemed to understand and look forward to the slower and calmer Monday, when most people were back at work. There was more time to talk, take meetings with buyers from supermarkets and specialty stores and sell what few pieces of cheese they had left for a discount.

For the intrepid visitor, there is always a number of intriguing tasting sessions organized by Slow Food to help highlight the cheese and different wines and alcohols – from beer to liquors, even sake and whiskey. This is really the essence of what Slow Food and Cheese does; it educates. It brings people into a quiet place where they can listen and taste products without interruption; 50 percent of the tickets for reserved events were sold outside of Italy, proving that a large number of visitors came from abroad. The tasting events were held in churches, community centers and at the University of Gastronomic Sciences in nearby Pollenzo.

Cheese Stack, Slow Food's Cheese Event
Jesse Dart

Another new feature this year was the natural area, a tasting space that showcased 58 Italian cheeses made with raw milk and without selected cultures – along with charcuterie free from nitrates, natural wines and Lambic beers from Belgium. The latter was a collection of what can be made without the use of so many additives, focusing more on what naturally occurs.

Later in the evening, as the sun started to go down, people gathered in one of the school yards where food trucks had been set up serving specialties from across the country — fried ascolana olives from Marche, arancini from Sicily and pizza from Naples. Many tended to finish the evening in the enoteca, drinking glasses of wine from hundreds of producers. There, attendees could sample cheese from the festival by the plateful, creating their own wine and cheese pairing. It was full, bustling each evening to capacity – the rarest wines were all finished by Saturday evening, but what was left was by no means down and out bottles.

By Tuesday, the day after Cheese was over, the town moved back toward normal. The tents came down much faster than they went up; trash was meticulously collected, most was recycled. The busses went back to their normal routes. The bars went back to serving their normal fare and the restaurants all took a day off to rest.
For those of us lucky enough to live here, good cheese never really goes away. It hides in plain sight at the supermarket, butcher shop, Giolito’s Cheese Shop in the center of town or the weekly market.

Jesse Dart

What Cheese the event does is remind us that there is this amazing, diverse product made all around the world that somehow unites people in their love for it. It’s a chance for producers to meet each other, learn new techniques, expand their palates and maybe not feel so alone up on top of the mountain where they milk their cows and make their cheese day in and day out. It’s a chance to see someone’s face light up when they try a cheese that surprises them – to melt in satisfaction – to understand that, in the end, cheese can work as a great organizer, a mediator in these days when so many things seem uncertain.

Cheese is not political, it doesn’t choose sides – it’s simply there to be eaten, treasured and enjoyed.

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