A Visit to the Bra Cheese Festival
In the glinting dawn sunlight at the Madrid airport, Ihsan made his perennial toast: "Here's to a great trip, baby!" Valerie and I raised our glasses of bubbling cava, and with a clink and a final sip, we were off. Our final destination after this layover was Bra, a city in Italy's Piedmont region, where we would be attending a Slow Food sponsored cheese festival appropriately called Cheese 2007.
Once in Bra we breathed the cool Piedmont air excitedly as we strode into the hubbub of the festival. With Ihsan and Valerie as my guide we made our way though plazas packed with visitors and streets lined with stalls of cheese makers. We soon hit our stride and bounced from meeting to meeting at a dizzying pace. In our first day alone, we toured Dario Pozzolo's apiary to taste his new vintage of Alpine honeys, visited the caves of our robiola stagionatura, glimpsed Matteo Ascheri's grape harvest, and finished with a big dinner party at the home of Giorgio Cravero, our Parmigiano supplier, where we caught up with fellow cheese lovers from Britain, Australia and France.
After an early breakfast of luscious raw veal sausage and hazelnut shortbread, day two's excitement began as we turned our focus to cheese. The sheer awesomeness of the festival permeated the town as cheese lovers from around the world were tasting and talking together in what common language they could find. We chatted in our own broken Italian or French, making notes along the way to capture any new inspirations.
By our third day we thought we had seen what there was to see and we felt the inevitable winding down that follows such a thrilling festival. We should have known better. That morning, we came upon a small stall with a selection of Belgian cheeses the likes of which we had not seen before. Despite the early hour we sat down with Peter, our passionate guide and tasted each cheese alongside a frothy pint of Belgian ale. With each taste, Ihsan, Valerie and I exchanged excited glances. Our heads cleared and our exhausted bodies found their second wind as we discovered these exceptional cheeses. Each taste, from the super pungent sheep's milk cheese to the mouth-coating fresh goat's milk cheese offered perfect balance in their expression of their farmy terroir. We eagerly discussed logistics with Peter coordinating the inaugural export of these Belgian cheeses to our shops in the United States.
Fresh from the success of the festival, we took a break from cheese to drive out into the hazy Piedmont countryside to visit Lo Spaventapaseri, at the hilltop farm of Simone and Cristina Roveglia whose amazing organic tomato sauces and confetture we import. Simone and Cristina welcomed us to a lunch under their chestnut tree with five courses punctuated by several of their amazing products. After devouring fresh robiola smothered in their rosehip jam, we were served overflowing plates of home made spaghetti coated in their own organic sugo di pomodoro.
At the end of the meal, Cristina poured a bubbly, sweet-tart Asti Spumanti and passed a plate of tender and fragrant amaretti cookies. After our first bite, Ihsan, Valerie and I exchanged glances again and smiled. We knew we had another discovery to make! Simone and Cristina told us that the tiny village of Mombaruzzo, located just below the farm, is famous for this soft style of amaretti and boasts eight amaretti bakeries. We could not believe our luck as we all piled into the car and drove down the hill to the village where Simone and Cristina introduced us to their favorite baker - Carlo Moriondo.
Armed with more samples to add to our ever-growing pile, we found our way back to the hotel's sunny roof deck where we took a few moments to digest our day (and our samples) with a glass of chilled wine. Looking out over the city and the cheese festival below, I felt how small the world can be when you're welcomed into people's history through this shared love of traditional food and wine. Our trip was only five days long, but we came home having visited with nearly ten producers from whom we currently import, and having found four new ones. Between the thrill of the hunt for new products and the warmth of the connection with existing friends, our trip fulfilled every traveler's greatest expectations -- or at least Ihsan's usual standard!By Leslie Mann - cheesebuyer for South End Formaggio