Exhausted, we biked about a mile, slightly uphill in the cool evening air, from the center of Bra. It was our second night at Villa Mamoli, a luxurious B&B. After an event-filled 30-hour journey that included the armed removal of a score of Arab men from our Seattle-Amsterdam flight, the explosion of a bomb at Charles De Gaulle Airport and lost luggage in Milan, we finally felt safe and secure. Our home away from home stood in a park at the end of a long, gated drive.
We carefully leaned our bikes against the 18th century mansion and were welcomed back by the innkeeper. As we entered the grand salone, she explained in Italian that she had several phone conversations with Air France, attempting to locate our lost luggage. ‘Grazie Mille,’ we chimed in unison. At that point, her nose began to twitch. ‘Formaggio’ she said, matter of factly, as she sniffed and pointed at her nose. ‘I think we’re being told we smell like cheese,’ I whispered. Although she told us in Italian, we clearly understood. Quickly, we excused ourselves and retired to our magnificent suite, where Napoleon temporarily had resided almost 200 years earlier. I couldn’t wait to take off my shoes. Caked in the crevices of the soles was cheese—blue, cheddar and goat, all easily removed with very hot water and the extra toothbrush provided by the airline. We shed our odoriferous togs, and soaked in a tub big enough for both of us. We reminisced about our day, our work, the kind and generous people that we met; and, our late afternoon break to eat our first slow meal in two days, at the romantic Ristorante Battaglino. Although they specialize in large joints of boiled meat with green and horseradish sauce, we savored instead a mostly vegetarian menu that included cheese stuffed zucchini flowers, assorted wild mushrooms, quiche, home-made tortellini and agnolotti, fruity dolcetto grown by the proprietor and, of course, the famous Bra cheese.
No wonder we reeked of formaggio. Our first day in Italy was spent at Cheese 2001 immersing ourselves in the smelly stuff. With the help of a few other Slow Food volunteers, we set up the Artisanal American Cheese stand at the fair, the world’s largest. Our central position amidst displays of some of the most famous, and I might add, delicious cheeses, was perfect. Bathed in sunshine, our stand was about 30 feet long and quite handsome. We were located in Piazza Carlo Alberto, a large square near the train station. Another hundred exhibitors were centered half a mile away on medieval streets close to city hall and Slow Food International headquarters.
Facing the aisle and alternating were two each of serving tables and glass topped display cases. In the background was a giant American flag with the stars forming an L on one end and the stripes as a backdrop. We decorated with posters, postcards and brochures. Handwritten signs explained, in Italian, that an assortment of cheese cost 2,000 lire and a poster 8,000 lire, and, that the monies raised would go to the families of NY firefighters
Slow Food USA wanted our presence there to illustrate that the US produces many world-class cheeses. That American cheese is not necessarily ‘Global Gold,’ pre-sliced and individually shrink-wrapped in plastic.
The cheese had only arrived the previous day. We unpacked over one thousand pounds of every type, size, and shape, now clearly understanding what Charles de Gaulle meant when he waxed eloquently about the challenge of governing a country with so many different cheeses.
Cougar Gold, a hard cheddar type produced by Washington State University Creamery came in a can. ‘Anyone have a can opener?’ Sally Jackson Sheep’s milk cheese, also from our home state, was wrapped in chestnut leaves. One fourteen-pound loaf of Peluso Teleme from California was runny and thick, like soup. A change of temperature combined with airline jitters produced something served best with a spoon! Goat cheese such as Homboldt Fog from Cypress Grove in California; Blue Feta from Lively Run Goat Dairy in NY; Rollingstone Chevre with anise and lavender from ‘Parma’, Idaho; and Brier Run Farm aged goat from West Virginia not only had distinct tastes but also individualistic packaging. ‘How do we serve these?’ I questioned, as I unpacked the saturated plastic tubs of Appleton Creamery Chevre with roasted garlic and herbs from Maine and Chevre de Provence from Fromagerie Belle Chevre in Elkmont, Alabama, both packaged in tiny tubs of olive oil.
Hurriedly we stuffed cheese into refrigerated cases with an organization that defied description. We began sorting and cutting bite-size slices, preparing ourselves for four days of 10 am to 11 pm service. At the time we had no idea just how successful the effort might be.
In the weeks before the event, I was honored to be asked to design a Slow Food U.S.A. cheese poster and postcard. I worked on the project in August and supplied the art to Lithotone of Elkhart, Indiana in early September. Lithotone not only donated the extraordinary printing and top quality paper to our effort, they completed their work in time to ship to Boston, for consolidation with the cheese, just before 9/11. When I created the postcard proclaiming ‘52 U.S. Producers from 17 states showcasing almost 100 different cow, goat and sheep milk cheeses,’ I gave little thought to the logistics of cutting and serving that many cheeses.
I thought instead of friends at Quillisascut Cheese Company in Rice, Washington, who educated our local Slow Food Convivium about small cheese makers across America. These people do backbreaking work, tending animals, managing a business, practicing a culinary artform and marketing, too often to an unknowing public, while global players receive government subsidies. Such cheesemakers deserve our support.
Like Sooners in the Oklahoma land rush, people began to crowd our stand, even before the event officially opened and all the cheese was unpacked. After the initial burst, it slowed down, so, my sweetheart and I excused ourselves for a much-needed late lunch. Unknown to us at the time, American cheese was about to receive a serious media jolt. At the opening ceremony of Cheese 2001, the mayor of Bra welcomed representatives from around the world. He extended special appreciation to the American delegation and asked them to stand. A crowd, estimated at 500, gave an ovation. The Sept. 21 issue of La Stampa newspaper featured our presence in two separate articles with large photos. ‘The ‘coals to Newcastle’ uniqueness of American Cheese in Italy, along with our fund raising effort could be seen on the nightly TV news, read about in other papers, and, heard about on the radio the next few days. When we returned, a little after four, the stand was inundated with customers.
‘Quattro varieta’ di formaggi, per favore,’ my first customer said, holding up four fingers and a 10, 000 lire note, Almost in unison, a young woman requested in English ‘Two assortments and a poster, please.’ Between the customers and me was one of the two serving tables, laden with different wheels, loaves, rolls, tomes, rounds, bricks, dips, cubes, tortas and logs. A huge wheel of Shelbourne Farms Cheddar was wrapped in cloth. Once the cloth was removed, the well-aged hard cheese could be cut into reasonably uniform shapes. Grafton Village Four Star Cheddar looked similar, once the wax coating was removed. We tried to keep a label close to each cheese, but that’s easier said than done. To stay in one piece, blue cheeses like Pointe Reyes made in California, Berkshire Blue from Massachusetts and Rustic Blue from Bingham Hill in Colorado needed to be cut by a skilled surgeon. Unwrapped, they also look confusingly similar. Kendall Farms Crème Fraiche was brilliant, but challenging to serve in a hurry. Capriole Banon from Indiana, wrapped in Bourboned chestnut leaves, is a creamy spread, especially in the bright midday sun, I later learned that double and triple cream cheeses are cut with a special knife with a very thin blade approximately 1/3inch deep and about a foot long. Two people worked one table at a time and we quickly established a reasonable routine for a moving target—cheese types that changed as they ran out and were replaced with a different cheese. The largest cheese served hundreds of assorted plates, the smallest, a dozen or so. Each paper plate, in addition to the cheese, also received a couple of slices of freshly baked bread and a spoonful of ‘marmellata.’ It took a while to prepare each plate and frequent orders for four or six meant quite a wait, especially for those people in line. The public, mostly from Piedmont, was very patient and understanding. Always rushing, I would occasionally skip one of the cheeses, the conserves or the bread. The customer would very politely inform me of my misdeed, and, I would correct it, of course, with an extra large portion.
People stressed their support of and friendship for the US and were delighted with the distinctiveness and creativity of our cheeses. They applauded our efforts to educate people about slow food. Most people contributed more than the requested donation for the poster and cheese plate. I received words of caring, concern, friendship, sympathy, support, love, unity, prayer, alignment and belief that with cheeses, our mutual democracy would prevail.
For the next three and a half days, we never caught up. As fast as we could serve a plate or roll a poster, there was a line for more. My wife increased her skills as a slicer and was, as a result, offered a job at Murray’s Cheese Shop in Greenwich Village. It’s backbreaking work and with such a long commute — she declined!
Bra is charming and friendly. It is one of the first places in Europe to be named a ‘Slow City.’ Museums, shopping and good food abounds. Bra Stravecchio is one of Italy’s classic cheeses. Boccondivino, Slow Food’s osteria, feels like home. There, endangered Piedmonte beef tartar is served with Barolo by the glass, — bellissimo! ‘Cheese’, held every other year expands Bra from a town of around thirty thousand to over one hundred thousand. It is well organized, educational and fun.
Recalling the pleasures of ‘Cheese’ in 1999, our taste buds were tantalized last summer as we made our choices online. We registered for four seminars including: Sheep’s Cheese Rules;’ ‘Comparing Blue Cheeses;’ ‘On the Road of Transhumance;’ about cheese made by migrant shepherds, and ‘The Great Cheeses of Normandy.’ At the time, we didn’t know we would be working. ‘Damn, we missed them all!’ Friends in Bra took pity and made sure that we participated in at least one seminar, ‘Rare Cheeses and Wines from Spain, ‘ held in at 3pm on the last day. The cheeses and wines were superb. Osborne, Palo Cortado alone made up for the missed opportunities! Since we were on our way to Spain, the seminar was an appropriate appetizer.
We returned to the stand, relieved some team members and finished serving the last few slices around five o’clock. ‘Let’s go back and soak in the tub before dinner,’ my wife suggested to me playfully. ‘Do I smell like cheese?’ I asked, just half kidding. ‘Of course not’ she said ‘that’s the sweet smell of success!’
Charles Finkel is one of the world’s leading authorities on beer and an active member of SF Seattle.
Photo: Charles Finkel and his wife Rose Ann in front of Villa Mamoli, Bra