The apple orchards and fields of sunflowers zoom past as we make our way to the Val Maira, one of the numerous valleys nestling in the Italian Alps. I am accompanying Fiorenzo Giolito on a house call to pick up a few dozen rounds of goat’s milk cheese. Driving an hour to pick up an order of artisan-made cheese is common practice for Bra’s most renowned cheesemonger: last week he took his motorcycle to the tiny town of Elva to pick up a load of fresh mountain butter. A third generation cheese merchant, Fiorenzo stocks a wide selection of small-batch, delicious local cheeses, as well as a range from all over Italy and Europe (Roquefort, Emmenthaler, Parmigiano Reggiano, Fontina, Gorgonzola … ). He supplies about 300 restaurants throughout Italy with rare and local cheeses in addition to the cornucopia of high quality cheeses and butters he offers residents of Bra and Alba each week at the local markets.
Giolito buys and then ages cheeses in his multipurpose shop/aging cave/cheese museum (a corner of the basement, next to the 80 pound rounds of Parmigiano, displays old cheesemaking instruments and paraphernalia) in Bra. About a hundred years ago, Bra was an important trading hub because of its location on the rail line connecting the port town of Genoa to the northern Italian interior. The large rounds of Bra cheese take their name from the townnot because they were ever made on this territory, but because the merchants of —Bra, amongst them Fiorenzo’s grandmother, would gather the large rounds, age them here and then ship the sturdy cheeses off to Genoa to make oversees voyages.
Unlike Fiorenzo Giolito, Giorgio and Marta Alifredi are new to the business of cheese. The highly educated couple—Marta is a medical doctor, Giorgio has a Doctor of Philosophy—decided to abandon their hectic city life in Turin for the tranquility of a small Alpine town 12 years ago. They live in an old church in the nearly abandoned town of Borgata Podio, burnt down by the Nazis when they failed to find the patriots who had been hiding there. From the porch of the Alifredis’ house there is a stunning view of the mountain range and San Damiano Macra, a town snuggled in the valley below. The couple’s four young children make a delightful ruckus as they play with the young apprentice cheesemaker living with the Alifredis, their only help with the goats and children up here in the deserted town. The mountain air is cool and refreshing; after a few minutes in the open mountain environment I recover from the queasiness induced by the winding mountain roads and Fiorenzo’s typically Italian driving.
Marta is a mild-mannered woman with bright blue eyes and dusty brown hair. She explains how a couple of years ago she and her husband enrolled in a cheesemaking class at the Istituto Lattiero Caseario and then participated in three apprenticeships, one with a Frenchman because the French ‘make the best goat cheeses in the world’. They started selling their cheeses under the Lo Puy label a year ago, and now supply half a dozen stores and several restaurants with their organic artisan cheeses. Giolito discovered the cheeses when he happened upon Marta selling them at a tiny Sunday market in San Damiano Macra.
Giorgio brings the 50 Saanen goats to pasture every morning and evening, and the animals and stalls are impeccably clean and healthy-looking. The goats eat only organic grains and wild grasses. Giorgio has the slight awkwardness of a person accustomed to being alone, or perhaps of a person used to pondering profound philosophical questions. In the pastures everyday from 7am to 10 am and again in the evening, he must have plenty of time for both. The pastures are filled with dozens of varieties of wild grass and flowers, giving the milk and thus the cheese different flavors from day to day, season to season. All the Lo Puy cheeses are made from raw goat milk to conserve the unique microflora present in the organic milk.
I taste three of the cheeses, the striking charbonet, the excellent chabri, and an as of yet unnamed aged round. The fresh, soft charbonet is visually striking but simple in flavor: a log of soft goat cheese with a typical acid bite, rolled in crushed natural charcoal to give it a black coating which contrasts with its snowy white interior. The Chabri is more interesting, with a soft natural rind, wonderful creamy texture and a clean animal smell. The third cheese, a small hard disc with natural white and blue mold growing on the crust (a sign of optimal aging conditions), is excellent: sharp and slightly spicy, with a strong smell and extremely persistent aftertaste. A delight for any goat cheese lover. All of the Lo Puy cheeses can be eaten whole, rind included, due to the clean and natural environment present in every stage of their production, from the milking to the aging. This is a rare treat for cheese aficionados; the rind adds excellent flavors to a soft cheese but often must be discarded for fear of contamination by undesirable molds. The small size of the cheeses make them perfect for one or two people and lovely on a cheese platter. Giolito says packaging is 40% of a cheese’s appeal, and these are as delightful to look at as they are to eat.
On our way back to town, the SUV loaded with dozens of pyramids and rounds of cheese, we stop to fill up on natural mountain water, trickling from a spout on the outskirts of town. Across the road they bottle and sell this same water, free to anyone with the knowledge of its whereabouts and a bit of patience.
When we get back to Bra Giolito hands me a big chunk of Braciuk, the cheese he invented and is justifiably proud of. ‘Ciuk’ means drunk in the local dialect, and the cheese is made from rounds of two-month-old Bra tenero cheese, further aged for two-three months in barrels of local Barbera, Pelaverga or Nebbiolo wine. It is a unique table cheese with layers of flavor: first hit the sweet grape notes and pungency of red wine, then the saltiness of the cheese and finally the mellow taste of browned butter. If you’re lucky enough to get a piece by the crust with natural blue mold it adds another delicious dimension. Somehow there is harmony in these disparate tastes. I finish off the one-pound hunk I was planning to share with friends at an alarming rate, oohing and ahhing with every bite.
The personable Fiorenzo Giolito will sell you as much Braciuk and Lo Puy goat cheese as you like at the open air market in Bra market every Wednesday and Friday morning, or at the Alba market on Saturdays. Better yet, come to Cheese 2003, where Giolito will have a large booth in the Great Hall of Cheese. There you can also meet the delightful Marta and Giorgio Alifredi who will showcase their La Puy cheeses.
Better brush up on your philosophy.
Sarah Weiner, an economics major at Dartmouth University in New Hampshire, currently lives in Italy, where she is a member of the editorial staff of www.slowfood.com.
Tel: 0172 412920
Fax: 0172 414448
E-mail: [email protected]
Tel: 0171 900032