Adelaide’s Cheesefest is coming up, inspired in part by Italy’s Bra Cheese Fair, so check this Italian Nonno of cheese fairs out!
It’s only a few sleeps now until one of Adelaide’s most popular food celebrations, Cheesefest, so to get you into the zone I thought I’d share my recent visit to the grand-daddy of cheese fairs, Slow Food’s Bra Cheese Fair, which is held every two years in the tiny town of Bra in Piedmont, Italy. Bra is the birthplace of Slow Food founder Carlo Petrini and is also the home of the world’s first University of Gastronomic Sciences, established by Petrini in 2004. It is a picturesque small Italian town with a population which generally hovers around the 30,000 mark, but once every two years this figure blows out enormously as cheese makers and cheese lovers from around the world converge on it for a biennial cheese binge.
The Bra cheese fair is seriously not for the faint-hearted. Held over four days, from the Friday to the Monday, it is a massive event with literally hundreds of cheese makers from all corners of the world attending to display their products, attend workshops and sessions and to network with their international peers. Each year around 150,000 people attend the fair to, not to put too fine a point on it, binge on cheese.
The event is free to attend and, while there are some internationals, it is clearly a very popular event among the locals who attend with the whole family. We caught the train from Turin down to Bra, along with what seemed like most of the population of Torino, all carrying large shopping bags or dragging trolleys, aiming to not only enjoy a day out in the sun, but to stock up on all the cheese they can carry home. The narrow streets of Bra are all closed to vehicular traffic as cheese-lovers take over the roads, wandering from the Mercato Italiano (Italian Market) through to the Mercato Internazionale e Via Degli Affinatori (International Market & Affineur Alley), past the food trucks, the street food stalls, the beer piazza and the Slow Food Presidio.
And O, the cheese! It can be a bit of a battle fighting your way through the eager cheese devotees all keen to grab a taste of the wealth of product on offer (and taking photos is quite a challenge), but it is worth the effort to taste things that we rarely (if ever) see here in Australia.
Some of the more established regions sent over contingents of their cheese makers, meaning that one could grab a chance to talk to the person who actually made the cheese you were tasting. I managed to catch up with some of the cheese producers associated with London’s Neal’s Yard Dairy (who I first wrote about here) as well as some of the US producers.
But back to the business at hand – the cheese.
As well as every possible cheese you could think of (although I was very pleased NOT to see that esoteric specialty cheese which has the live maggots in it) there is also huge a range of conferences and workshops available. These have to be booked and paid for in advance and cover a vast range of the aspects of dairying and cheese production including cheese and soil, fair trade, milk quotas, animal welfare, breeds of dairy livestock, international cheese regions and loads more. I was a little late to the party with these, but managed to book us into a great workshop called “Milk Maids”, a session on women cheese makers – a subject of special interest to me and particular relevance given that a few of my friends are female cheese makers, one of whom I actually bumped into at the workshop! True story.
All in all the Bra cheese fair is a simply incredible event and one that, as a food blogger, I am so thankful I managed to get to. (Thanks for this should go to my friend Valerie Henbest of Adelaide’s Smelly Cheese Shop who urged The Bloke and I to re-arrange our travel plans in Italy to get to it. Because of this we completely changed our itinerary, in the process discovering a part of Italy which we totally fell in love with – but more about that later.)
The next cheese fair in Bra is not until 2017, giving you plenty of time to save up and plan a trip if cheese is what floats your boat and I’d like to offer a couple of suggestions for those planning on attending.
It is very simple to get by train to Bra from Torino, but prepare for a crush and maybe try to get an early train. Don’t expect to get back to Torino quickly either – the trains are equally as full on the way home.
Don’t expect to be able to stay in Bra as it is very small, but if you are brave enough to drive on Italian roads (I’m not) you should be able to find accommodation in surrounding towns if you plan early.
If you wish to attend any of the workshops or conferences book early – don’t leave it until a week or two before the event.
Think about which day of the fair you might be able to attend – we went on the Saturday, as did a large amount of the local populace. It may be a little quieter on the Friday or the Monday.
And DO NOT eat much before you go. Really.