An insightful account of Cheese 2013 in Bra, Piedmont (North Italy) by our Galway Cheesemonger Emilia Furey.
When I found out I was going to attend the Bra Cheese Festival in Piedmonte, Italy as a representative of Sheridans Cheesemongers, I don’t think I knew what to expect. I knew good food, good wine and most likely good weather was involved and possibly some hard graft at our cheese stall over the course of the few days the festival ran. It was all that… But also so much more…
Travelling from Milan airport in our cortege of cars filled with excited Cheesemongers, we drove through the Italian countryside for just over two hours to reach our destination fantastico – Bra. Here, in this quiet, beautiful and special little gem of a town, we drove around to view what was to become the hub of all things Slow Food and all things cheese! On our first day, set up was just beginning and all the many strange and wonderful cheese makers, cheesemongers and other special stall holders were hard at work trying to create aesthetically pleasing stalls to display their exciting products but mainly, to create stands that welcomed all visitors and show case what each stall and company had to offer the customer, the browser and the wonderer!
Over the course of the next 4 days, the Sheridan’s staff (along with help from Jess and Dave Murphy at Kai, Siochfradha from Rúa and Donal from Fallon & Byrne) that travelled over to Bra, worked and laughed together in shifts to man the Sheridans Cheese stall and the Presidium stand, which was dedicated to raw milk Irish cheeses. Things were hectic, busy, confusing with the Italian language barrier ( we tried to muster few phrases) and the hours flew by. In between shifts, we were free to take walks around the town and take in the sights and visit all the other stands and get to meet some of the people who’s products we stock like Marcel Petit Comtés’ Mr Goux, who gave us a fantastic talk on the work and special attention that goes into selecting only the finest Comté for each customer and how they know by taste what each customer really wants in their Comté wheel! Sheridans have a special and old connection with the Cravero family who supply our Parmesan and they hail from Bra itself. We got a chance as a group to visit the family home and the business which is part of their amazing home. Snuggled down a narrow, high walled drive, lies the big iron gates that holds the walls that mind our beloved Parmesan! We walked into the warehouse where the parmesan live and age, and the sweet and milky smell of the wheels hit us immediately. We all stood around with our eyes wide with admiration and our mouths watering with the scent of the quality and thought of fresh parmesan shaves falling onto a bowl of hot fresh pasta! Outside, the view onto the surrounding valleys was breathtaking! clear blue skies, warm and breezy weather and to share this with a group of like minded happy and excited cheese fanatic’s – you could not have asked for a better place to be in that moment!
The town invites everyone with open arms. Gorgeous coffee available at every turn, patisserie shops full to the brim with special cakes and treats, big fluffy sheets of focaccia bread with cheese, marrinara and olives wafting out luring you in at counters, happy smiling and kind people, al fresco dining with glasses of the finest prosecco and a view of the world walking by and the most important place of all, Café Converso! Situated at the end of a long cobbled street with an old, comforting and large cream coloured church as its neighbour, lies one of the best things about this town besides its people and its love of cheese. Café Converso is like your own kitchen. A very well manned kitchen I might add with a side entrance that supplies you with the finest Italian chocolates and treats to take home if you wish. You walk in the door and Federico opens his arms and welcomes you like an old friend. Shouts of drinks are made for you and a little plate of special snacks are brought with every drink order. You look to your left and find a man with a parma ham and a plate of ripe gorgonzola handing out tastes. People laughing, singing, chatting and all delighted to be included into the cosy little piece of italian hospitality and warm hearted welcomes.
This festival is a prime example of what people can do when they work together for something beyond themselves. Slow Food – attention to detail – like minded people – creativity – caring attentively to the product and the people behind the product is the ethos of this festival. The passion and care that went into even the dedicated rubbish police they had sitting at every bin exemplifies the whole thought logic behind trying to create a place and event like this, that spreads joy and that would stimulate interests in those who may not have even thought about the man who turns the wheel of parmesan that eventually becomes the shaves of cheese that melt into his hot pasta bowl in Galway, a thousand miles away from where the cheese began life. This town is a faint reminder of something sometimes missing in our own country. The happiness, the kindness, the smiles, the chat, the atmosphere – you cant fake that. You don’t need to have money to create this – it exists places still in the world – where people enjoy having people visit if only to have a chat about about the taste of a cheese over a glass of wine. Sheridans is a little slice of this in Ireland. Of course, Sheridans made it possible to bring their Irish family to meet their extended Italian family and we were treated like such. I am so glad I got to travel with Sheridans to see the spectacular and amazing festival of CHEESE in Bra this year. I cannot recommend a visit of this kind to anyone more – foodies or not – festival or not – Bra is a sight to behold. Go visit, sit down with a glass of wine made in the hills around you, sample the cheese that lives up the road, soak up the sun that shines gladly on you, take in the sound of happy, smiling people and enjoy the simple and special things that are still left for you in the world.