Behind the Scenes at the Great Hall of Cheese
19 Aug 09
Cheese is truly an event unique in Italy, perhaps even the world, offering visitors countless opportunities to understand, learn, investigate, taste, buy, participate and have fun. This multi-layered event takes a 360° look at the world of milk and dairy, and its diversity means its organization requires many specialized skills from different fields.
In particular organizing Great Hall of Cheese requires a huge amount of work, particularly this year in which the main theme is rare and unusual cheeses from around the world. These are cheeses of the highest quality that are hard to find because they are made in very small quantities, come from far away or use unusual techniques or ingredients.
Over seven editions of Cheese we have put together a tried and tested organizational machine and developed a network of contacts that allows us to track down the rarest cheeses. A large section of the Great Hall is dedicated to Presidia cheeses, with 24 from Italy and 15 from the rest of the world. These are products that are protected and promoted thanks to the support of the Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity. The other cheeses are identified thanks to recommendations we receive from an extensive network of collaborators who are familiar with their local area – dairy professionals, Slow Food convivium leaders and association members in Italy and elsewhere, affineurs and cheesemakers.
The Slow Food team starts to select products in February. Some are already familiar, while others are new and need to be thoroughly evaluated. All exhibitors who are taking part in Cheese for the first time send a sample of their cheeses to Slow Food’s Bra offices, along with technical details for each cheese listing ingredients, production techniques, type, aging and any affinage. A description of the dairy is also requested, specifying type of farming, supply of milk if sourced externally, etc. Sometimes it is necessary to visit dairies or affineurs located abroad or in hard-to-reach places.
For example the journey of the new Norwegian Presidium Pultost towards Bra began a few years ago, when the cheesemaking community took part in the second Terra Madre in Turin in 2006. This cheese has a very distinctive flavor and great potential, but it is made only by a handful of small dairies for a very limited local market. The cheese caught the attention of the Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity and in 2008 the staff member responsible for northern Europe visited Norway, touring the local area, finding out more about the producers and observing the production process. Back in Bra Pultost was analyzed during a technical tasting by experts, who judged it positively. The process then began to create a new Presidium, with the aim of preserving artisanal production of the cheese.
Some cheeses require long and complex bureaucratic procedures before they can be presented for tasting at Cheese. This is the case for raw-milk cheeses from the United States, and every edition it is necessary to ask for special dispensation from the Health Ministry in order to import them. At the last Cheese in 2007 we managed to have Whitestone Windsor Blue from New Zealand only thanks to the intervention of the Italian consulate.
By the end of July the geography of the cheese specialties that will make up the Great Hall is complete. The catalog of cheeses that visitors will find during the event is drawn up and descriptions written for each one, listing country of origin, ingredients, type and aging.
While the task of research and identification takes many months, the work needed immediately before and during the event is just as laborious.
During early September the Great Hall that will host the cheeses is constructed. Meanwhile we begin the process of requesting between 10 and 15 kilograms of each of the 100-plus types of cheese. The cheeses come in all different shapes and sizes, fresh and aged, and they all have to be stored in the right conditions so as to be perfect for the event itself. Most are brought directly to Bra by the producers who will be exhibiting in the Market or the Presidia area. Three large parking lots with individual electrical connections are set up around the town to host the refrigerated trucks, with around 70 parking spaces. The rest of the cheeses are sent to the Slow Food warehouse, where they are labeled with numbers according to the Cheeselist, the catalog of Great Hall cheeses, and stored in two refrigerated rooms at cellar temperatures.
Things become even more frenetic during the week of the event. On Wednesday the exhibition space is filled with signs, shelves, tables and other equipment and the refrigerated counters and cases are switched on. The technicians, electricians and carpenters then leave the space to the cheesemongers of Bra and the other experts who over the years have contributed to making Cheese so successful like Juliet Harbutt from the United Kingdom, considered one of the most important authorities in the cheese world. The Great Hall is now handed over to them and the staff who will assist them during the next four days: over 50 young people ready to find out all about this new and fascinating world, to learn how to recognize and describe the characteristics of rare cheeses, use the right knife, cut the cheeses perfectly and serve them to customers.
On Friday morning the Great Hall will be ready for the Cheese visitors, its jewels displayed in refrigerated cases, labeled and divided into individual portions on cutting boards, ready to give cheese enthusiasts and connoisseurs that moment of pure gastronomic pleasure that can be found only here.