“Behind every cheese there is a pasture of a different green under a different sky: meadows caked with salt that the tides of Normandy deposit every evening; meadows scented with aromas in the windy sunlight of Provence…”
Italo Calvino’s words perfectly describe how every cheese can be the starting point for a journey that leads to the discovery of a unique cultural heritage: breeds selected over the centuries and adapted to harsh environments, high-mountain pastures and dairies, ancient knowledge and traditional processing techniques.
During Cheese, Via Princìpi di Piemonte and Via Marconi in the heart of Bra will be filled with cheeses (and breads, honeys and preserves) from over 60 Slow Food Presidia. The stands will be manned by the small-scale producers who with their passion and commitment are resisting standardization and the homogenization of taste, each representing their own local area, traditions and ancient knowledge.
At stand after stand, visitors will be able to discover the extraordinary biodiversity of cheese production around the world: from Africa to the Balkans via the Mediterranean and the Alps and on to the pastures of Northern Europe.
Livestock herding traditions have survived across most of the mountainous areas of the Balkans. In Bulgaria, up in the Stara Planina mountains, we find sheep’s cheeses made with milk from the Tetevan breed, one of the smallest in Europe, produced in summer mountain pastures and then aged in cellars in the village of Tcherni Vit. Here, the specific climactic conditions and humidity lead to the development of noble molds, producing Zeleno Sirene, green cheese (a Slow Food Presidium). Also in Bulgaria, in the Pirin mountains, lives a sheep breed at risk of extinction, the Karakachan (also a Presidium). Just 800 head remain of this small sheep, whose thick, fragrant milk makes unforgettable yogurt. The tradition of transhumance, the seasonal migration of livestock, lives on in Macedonia, near the border with Kosovo, in the Mavrovo nature park. In the summer, Sharplaninska sheep are taken to graze in mountain pastures, where the shepherd-cheesemakers produce the feta-like Belo Sirene, and incredible Kashkaval, a Slow Food Presidium. Branza, a typical sheep’s cheese, is made throughout the Carpathians in Romania, but the best comes from the Bucegi mountains, where Slow Food Presidium Branza de Burduf is aged in fir bark.
In Northern Europe, meanwhile, Presidia are often established to protect breeds that have adapted well to cold climates and harsh environments, breeds that produce quality milk and represent small but interesting traditions. Here, as in the Balkans, problems are mostly legal, with strict laws governing raw-milk cheese production. Presidia present at Cheese will include Artisan Somerset Cheddar, Irish raw-milk cheeses and Geitost from Norway (the most unusual of them all, sweet and caramelized, more like a dessert than a cheese).
But it is particularly the Alps, the heart of Europe, according to the famous Czech writer Milan Kundera, that are still home to cheesemakers who still produce cheese using the techniques of a hundred, five hundred or even a thousand years ago, preserving ancient traditions, a heritage for the whole continent. Cheesemakers climb up to the mountain pastures, milk their animals the first time, make cheeses (always without artificial starter cultures), salt them and set them on wooden boards to age. Then they milk the animals again and make more cheeses. As the days pass, the first cheeses must be turned, cleaned, perhaps wiped. And so they go on for three months, sometimes more. Given this rich tradition, perhaps Kundera forgot to say that the Alps are the cheesemaking heart of Europe. Plenty of great mountain cheeses from Italy (Bitto, Macagn, Cevrin and others), France (cheeses from the Auvergne made with milk from Salers cows) and Switzerland (Emmentaler, Sbrinz, Vacherin) will be present at the event in Bra.
In other places, necessity has been the mother of invention. A huge variety of cheeses are made around the Mediterranean. Greece alone has 30 PDOs-and livestock herding has ancient origins here. In fact, only in the Middle East have people been herding animals for longer. Different climates and a fragmented social history mean that around 1,200 of the world’s 2,000 cheeses are produced here.
On the other side of the Mediterranean, in Africa, the situation is different: Climate change is causing serious problems for herders, the custom of milking goats is being lost and food-safety issues are non-trivial. Nonetheless, milk and yogurt are commonly consumed throughout the continent, and many fascinating dairy products are produced in Africa. Among the Presidia stands, look out for Ethiopian Karrayu herders with their camel’s milk and the Pokot of Kenya with their ash yogurt.
One more reason to visit this year: The Presidia will be presented at Cheese with the new narrative label, a system for food labeling packed with information about producers, breeds, production techniques, places of origin and animal welfare.
Photo: Producers from the Béarn High Pasture Cheese Presidium. © Kunal Chandra