Every two years, the biggest festival in the cheese world happens in Bra, Italy. The event is known simply as “Cheese.” Cheesemakers, cheesemongers, journalists, food lovers and folks lucky enough to live close by, descend on the small town of Bra to sample, sell and eat literally tons of cheese. This year at the biennial festival it was no different. With one exception. The thermometer hit a whopping 90°F.
Our home away from home during the festival is Cantine Ascheri. Owner Matteo Ascheri is a big bear of a guy, an excellent winemaker, and our personal guide for all things Piemontese. In the years we have known him, he has introduced us to many of the food artisans we still work with today.
After getting settled at the hotel, our next stop was lunch at Matteo’s Osteria. A meal of gnocchi with Castelmagno, a veal chop, delicate raviolis and a bottle of his Pelaverga wine jump-started our day after the long flight.
After lunch, we drove to the small town of Bubbio in the province of Asti to meet up with a local robiola producer and sample his cheeses. Kurt and David, lead cheese buyers for our Cambridge and South End locations, joined us there. They had just driven down from the Jura where they tasted through our fall/winter selection of Comté and attended the opening party of the new caves at Marcel Petite. After a few hours of cheese, wine, amaretti and torrone (whew!) we drove back to Bra. The next day would begin at 7am with more meetings and tastings throughout the day so we needed a good night’s sleep.
One of the events we look forward to at “Cheese” is the dinner hosted by Giorgio Cravero. Giorgio ages our stellar Parmigiano Reggiano and, to kick off the Cheese festival, he invites a small group of friends to dinner at a local restaurant. The meal feels like a family reunion as many of our closest international cheese friends are there, including Jason Hinds and Randolph Hodgson of Neal’s Yard Dairy, Philippe Goux from Marcel Petite, Will Studd, a filmmaker from Australia, Betty and Martin Koster from L’Amuse, among many others.
When we were not moving around the restaurant to catch up with friends, we enjoyed a sampling of classic Piemontese cuisine including salsiccia di Bra, carne cruda and agnolotti al plin with butter and sage. Wine flowed throughout the night and, at the end of the meal, the outdoor patio attracted a collection of cigar lovers.
The next day we walked the city of Cheese in the scorching sun. Undeterred by the heat, we tasted through hundreds of cheeses – standing most of the time and moving along until something caught our attention or we were invited to sit (thank goodness!) and have a glass of wine or beer at a friend’s booth.
After a successful day at the show and a quick rest at the hotel, we made another regular stop to have dinner with the Marino family in the town of Cossano Belbo. Mulino Marino is a family-run mill that stone-grinds organic grains to give us our tipo 00 flour and our incredibly flavorful polentas. We drove an hour over winding roads to get there and, despite the numerous times we’d been before, we inevitably had to stop at a few unsigned intersections to make sure we were on the right track.
Dinner with the Marino family is always a long evening with an abundance of food and drink and an incredible feeling of Famiglia. Maria-Teresa and Gabriella prepared a feast this year that began on the terrace with Enkir flour cakes and salumi with a local sparkling rosé. We moved inside and began with a giardiniera; a salad of picked vegetables, tomatoes, white beans and tuna as well as their own pickled porcini served with a local Dolcetto; then we moved onto a homemade pasta made with their Enkir flour and served with a ragu sauce and Barbaresco.
After a moment wondering whether we could go on, our appetites reappeared when the polenta (slowly cooked for 3-4 hours) appeared alongside slices of braised beef shank served with a Clerico Barolo 2005 and a Cappellano Pie Franco Barolo 2005. It was a symphony of food, all the while with multiple conversations flowing around the table in Italian and English and some a combination of the two.
As the meal was winding down, we ate freshly sliced peaches with homemade ice cream, and a pear torte. The party moved to the terrace again when the men decided to smoke cigars and try the local beer brewed with their Enkir flour (something we just started carrying at the shop) and then we all had various grappas from the legendary Romano Levi. Around 1:00am, we really had to go. Incredibly, the ride home went by without a single stop to find our way. We were soon back in the comfort of Matteo’s hotel.
Another day at Cheese was spent catching up with old producers like Maria from Caseficio Caggiano. She shared some of her amazing spicy salami with us – unfortunately, we can’t sell her salami (due to import restrictions) but she is going to send us some of her ground dried pepperoncini, so be on the lookout for it in our shops soon! Over the course of the day, we implemented a divide and conquer strategy to cover a lot of ground.
Now, back home, we can’t wait for our new finds to arrive: tajarin pastas will be arriving just in time for winter truffle season, there will be new amaretti, honeys, Enkir flour cakes and rye pasta coming in over the next few months. Keep an eye out in our stores and on Facebook and Twitter where we’ll note their arrivals.
On our trip, it does seem a bit like all we did was eat and drink – consider it quality control – all part of the job!
Valerie Gurdal is the owner of Formaggio Kitchen South End.