To attend Cheese is to experience the present and future of milk’s leap toward immortality.
When cheese takes over an entire town, it deserves a capital letter.
Cheese is the name of the biannual show developed by Italy’s Slow Food movement, and in the course of 22 years, it has abundantly overrun its host town of Bra in south-central Piedmont.
In 1997, the first year of the show, the event was a homey gathering of about 20 mostly-Italian cheesemakers and guests clustered around a small section of Corso Garibaldi near Bra’s main square. Cheese 2019, which ran from Sept. 20-23, 2019, was a world-class assembly of 350+ exhibitors from 20 countries; 225 events, including tastings, workshops, conferences, special dinners, panel discussions, film screenings and presentations; and about 300,000 visitors from five continents.
It took over the entire town center of Bra (population 30,000), and spilled over to the nearby community of Pollenzo, about four miles away. Pollenzo is not a casual choice: Slow Food established a renowned University of Gastronomic Sciences there in 2004, so the two locations are closely linked. A shuttle bus carried attendees regularly between them.
Area lodgings for Cheese book up months in advance, and cars are diverted to large parking spaces outside of town; frequent shuttle buses transported visitors to center city, which became a giant pedestrian zone for four days.
In keeping with the Slow Food philosophy of food that is good to eat, clean for the environment, and fair in price for consumers and conditions for producers, all cheeses on display in Bra had to be made from raw (i.e., unpasteurized) milk. The raw milk rule was introduced at Cheese 2017, a courageous decision, according to some exhibitors.
Hence the theme for Cheese 2019: Natural is Possible.
The theme echoes trends in global consumption, claim exhibitors at Cheese. According to Laure Dubouloz, chief operating officer of Mons Fromagerie, “The general trend in France is in natural cheeses. People are more aware of the environment, where cheese comes from, the merits of local cheeses and how cheese is made. ‘Local’ means terroir, and people are curious about that.”
Nicola Bertinelli, president of the Parmigiano Reggiano Consortium, points out that the naturality of Parmigiano Reggiano—from the raw ingredients to the way it is processed—distinguishes it from other hard cheeses. “Informed consumers are the real means for natural cheese to win against industrial cheese made by multinationals,” he says. “Our cheese has been made using the same recipe with raw milk and natural fermented whey for nine centuries.”
‘Natural’ means more than unpasteurized milk; it means know-how, technique, tradition and strict attention to hygiene. Cheeses on display in Bra lacked GMOs, synthetic flavorings such as artificial truffle essence, transgenic rennet, chemically-treated or smoked rinds, artificial preservatives, additives or colorings. Cheeses with bright blue, green, red or purple colorations—and there were some—attracted attention, and their purveyors spent a lot of time explaining to aficionados how these colors were developed naturally.
To underscore the importance of ‘natural,’ Cheese 2019 included products— all made naturally according to Slow Food standards—that either complement cheese (salumi, bread, wine, beer), share the same origins (butter, gelato) or make use of cheese naturally (pizza). There were even four workshops devoted to Toscano cigars and their affinity with cheese.
A major trend evident to buyers and consumers at Cheese is the sustained focus on the origins and traceability of products: What breeds of cow, sheep, goats? How are they treated? What grass do they eat? How long do the animals graze?
Marjolein Kooistra, a professor at the Erasmus School of Social and Behavioural Sciences in Rotterdam, explains the importance of a story behind each product. When she first came to Cheese in 2003 to promote raw milk Gouda, magazines were looking for new products. Specialized cheese shops were opening. “Customers wanted to hear a story and we had one,” she says. Today, everyone wants to hear a story, and all cheesemakers are copying us,” she says.
She lists a series of other trends: an interest in raw milk; younger, fresher cheeses; low fat cheeses; all that is “healthy”. “People are eating less meat so cheese is a logical alternative,” she adds.
In addition, there is renewed interest in blue-veined cheeses and a small but discernable attention to cheeses with vegetable rennets.
Manuel Maia of Tradifoods, a distributor of Portuguese cheeses, observes that blue cheese and soft cheeses are attractive worldwide. He sees an increased focus on goat cheeses with non-animal rennet. Portugal benefits, since its cheeses are traditionally made from goat and sheep milk with vegetarian rennet.
A renowned pizza maker from Naples, Italy, Federica Mignacca tries to use local and traditional cheeses in her innovative pizzas. She says there is a trend toward semi-soft cheeses.
Laura Marotta, a retailer in Vercelli, Italy, sees a rising request for blues. “Erborinati (blue-veined cheeses) attract clients these days,” she notes, while Mozzarella is always popular in her shop, La Salsamenteria.
Vegetarians eschew cheeses made with animal-based rennet, so they seek out those using vegetable as an acceptable alternative. A number of exhibitors at Cheese offered them—the Portuguese because their cheeses have always been made this way, and some French, Spanish and Italian cheesemakers. One Norwegian cheese, Pultost, is made with a self-produced culture of lactic bacteria, but that is the exception. The norm for vegetarian cheese is a plant-based rennet. Over the centuries, these have been developed from fig, saffron and gallium, but wild artichoke (cardoom) was the favored choice for Cheese exhibitors.
The interest in vegetarian offerings as well as raw milk and artisanal cheeses will continue, say exhibitors. What is less certain is the effect climate change will have on animals, grazing lands and, ultimately, cheese. That there will be an impact is unquestioned, but in what ways is unclear. Perhaps Cheese 2021 will provide some answers.