FOOD CULTURE – The First National Raw Milk Cheese Contest

This morning a press conference was held in the splendid Grand Hotel in Rome, to present the First National Raw Milk Cheese Contest: the Best Italian Cheese, which will culminate in a gala evening on November 17 at the Casinò de la Vallé in Saint Vincent. The presentation was hosted by the Ministry for Agricultural Policy (sponsor of the event with the Independent Val d’Aosta Regional Authority) with the cooperation of the Casinò de la Vallé and the town of Saint Vincent.

The conference was attended by many experts and members of the press: along with the atmosphere of curiosity and interest aroused by the event, this demonstrates that the idea of a national contest presented in a ‘scientific’ way and supported by the Ministry has its appeal. But will it meet with the approval and interest of the cheese-makers themselves?

Producers are not usually enthusiastic about food and wine contests – unless they win, obviously. Partly because Italians do not share the Anglo-Saxon mentality of competition for its own sake; and partly because anyone who makes edible products in Italy (and not only in Italy) is convinced that their product is the best in the world and therefore cannot bear their cheese, wine, or cured meats to be judged as anything less than extraordinary. Yet the group promoting the contest – Coopagrival, Anfosc, Slow Food, ONAF, Corfilac and the Association for the Promotion of Mountain Pastures – is convinced that the producers will be interested.

Slow Food, for example, maintains that the cheesemaking sector is in a transitional phase, like the one experienced by the wine industry a few years ago: consumers are gradually coming to see cheese as a source of pleasure and culture, not just as a simple food item. This new status brings with it an increase in consumer involvement (as is well-known, the more you know about a product, the more you will come to like it) and, at the same time, in the quality of Italian cheeses which now have to satisfy an increasingly diverse and knowledgeable demand. What better occasion could there be than a national contest to arouse the curiosity of those whose contact with cheese is still nonchalant, almost automatic? Today cheese is still selected according to family habits, with the limited mentality of those who always choose the same local type. But in the future choices could be increasingly conditioned by a desire for something new, a hedonistic urge, an increased awareness of food culture. The contest is therefore an opportunity to showcase cheeses in order to surprise or astonish the careless consumer who makes retail choices out of habit.

Which cheeses will be featured in the contest? It’s hard to say. The fact that they must be raw milk cheeses, which was (rightly) an indispensable condition imposed by the organizers, will certainly discourage many producers, and automatically excludes almost all industrially-made products. But it is important to be able to count on a high level of participation, also because of the high standard of the jury panel. The cheeses will be judged by important figures such as: Jacques Puisais, the founder of Taste Education in France; British writer and journalist Joanna Blythman; Juliet Harbutt, one of the greatest cheesemaking experts in the Anglo-Saxon world; Anton Schmutz, chairman of Fromart, Switzerland; Gregory Blais, cheese selector for Dean&Deluca, a large American chain of specialty stores; accredited Spanish journalist Eric Canut; and, of course, all the Italian experts linked to Slow Food, Onaf, Corfilac, Anfosc. If the quality of the jury panel is any guarantee of the reliability of the contest, then Saint Vincent is set to be an extraordinary event, a contest that will accompany the Italian cheesemaking sector every year on its journey towards diversification, typicality and organoleptic quality. A little like the famous Three Glasses symbols in the Slow Food and Gambero Rosso Italian Wines guide, which have undoubtedly helped Italian wine on its way up to world standards. Like it or not, there can be no doubt that the public imagination enjoys the strong stimulus of awarding points and classifications: if for no other reason than to assess them and perhaps disagree with them.

photo: the event logo

Piero Sardo, a journalist and cheese expert, is a vice-president of Slow Food

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