Together with several Borough Market cheesemongers, Market Life pays a visit to Slow Food’s biannual cheese festival in the Italian town of Bra and discovers a continent-wide community committed to sharing ideas and sustaining regional traditions
Words: Clare Finney
Images: Orlando Gili
Take Borough Market, multiply the square footage and crowd size by about five, and replace all but a handful of the stalls not selling cheese with even more cheesemongers. Add a dedicated ‘beer square’, extend Borough Wines and Cartwright Brothers by 20 metres apiece, and imagine people queuing up to buy (and drink) from them not long after 9am. Got it? Then you’re about halfway to imagining Slow Food’s cheese festival: an homage to fromage that takes place in—or rather, completely takes over—the town of Bra, in Piedmont, northern Italy, every two years.
For those who make, mature, buy or sell cheese, this is mecca: a small, picturesque Italian town transformed into a patchwork of tents and tables creaking with cheese wheels; producers and punters alike uniting in celebration of cheese and all that it stands for. Camilla, a young Italian who has spent the past 18 months working for the Austrian cheesemaker Anton Sutterlüty, can’t hide her excitement: “Cheese is very important. It hides a lot of hard work. I like that something so big is organised for it. It is beautiful to be here in Italy, my home, representing my second home of Austria, and to act as a translator and ambassador.” That cheese is not something Austria is known for is, she says, all the more reason to be here. “It’s a whole new world. I had no idea when I started,” she enthuses. “There are so many types of cheese in Austria—and so much work that goes into each.”
It’s a phrase I hear over and over: ‘hard work’ and ‘time’ define the creation of artisan cheese, though no one involved is complaining about that. If you don’t like hard work, you don’t go into cheesemaking—and you certainly don’t go into making cheese with unpasteurised milk, a key criterion for entering the festival. As of 2017, only cheesemakers who produce with raw, unpasteurised milk are allowed to exhibit or be exhibited by affineurs and retailers, in a concerted effort to promote cheese that is “as natural as possible”, as the festival’s tagline stipulates. If you’re here in Bra, you are “participating in work that is bigger than you and your team—that’s about the land and expressing the land. In some ways the cheese is incidental,” comments Mateo Kehler, the founder of Jasper Hill Farm in Vermont, USA. “All of us are working on our land for our communities. If you’re making cheese”—raw milk cheese, that demands the highest standards of welfare, hygiene, knowledge and care—“you’re looking to do something meaningful. No one here is in it to make money.”
Pooled knowledge and experience
They’re here for the passion. They’re here for the feedback. They’re here for the pooled knowledge and experience of several hundred cheesemakers. They’re here because cheesemaking “can be quite isolating work, living in the middle of the countryside, working long hours—and if you don’t understand why it matters and how you’re connecting to the wider world of cheese, it can just be a grind.”
Mateo’s life in cheese began at Borough Market, back in the days when Southwark was still “a scary place. You had to look over your shoulder”—especially at 4am, when Mateo could be found delivering cheeses for Neal’s Yard Dairy on Stoney Street. Coming to Bra now, as an award-winning American cheesemaker, presents as much a chance for him to catch up with old colleagues and mentors as it does for him to promote his Winnimere and Harbison cheeses. “People might look down on something that sounds social and fun, but having this space to connect provides a tremendous amount to making business and the flow of information work,” says David Lockwood, director of Neal’s Yard Dairy, which, along with Mons Cheesemongers, has brought the contents of its bounteous Borough Market shop to the street dubbed Affineurs Alley. “Meeting people, knowing them, knowing that when things go wrong you can call on them—that is when you really reap the benefit.” The all-day beers and post-festival dinners might look like a jolly—and they are—but underneath lies a serious mission. “Being here tightens our relationship with our staff, our customers and colleagues—and the wider community, with whom we can work out the threats to our industry, how we work on them together, and anything else that’s going on.”
First and foremost on this unofficial agenda is the environment: how, in a world that’s dangerously warming, can farmers raise livestock in such a way that counteracts rather than contributes toward emissions? “In a moment of global climate change, where agriculture represents a really important part of the answer, this is an opportunity to come together and get organised,” notes Mateo. “We’ve got to do our best to be the solution, not the problem,” echoes Tom Calver from behind the Cheddar Presidia stand, where he is representing his cheddar from Westcombe Dairy.
After decades of farming holstein-friesans, the Calvers—Tom, his wife and his parents—have taken the bold decision to switch to shorthorns: a heritage breed of cow that offers both versatility and slower, more sustainable growth. “I don’t want to say it because it’s such a buzzword these days, but the whole ‘sustainable, regenerative agriculture’ thing is something we’ve flirted with for some years now, and if you’re looking for lower impact farming, the breed we have at the moment is like a racing car,” he explains. “They need high energy, high protein feed like soya and maize, both of which can be bad for the environment.” These are crops whose production tends to involve vast monocultures that contribute to deforestation, soil degradation and loss of biodiversity. “Yet with a slightly slower growing heritage breed like the shorthorn, they simply need grass and silage.” What’s more, less intensive farming also means a reduced susceptibility to disease.
At the end of the cows’ milking life, the Calvers will put their retired shorthorns out to pasture for a couple of years before sending them to the slaughterhouse, an approach traditional in the Basque Country, where ‘txuleta’—the meat of ex-dairy cows—is renowned for its flavour. It makes the most of the animal’s life, the resources and the work that have gone into raising and sustaining it, and—this is not to be sniffed at—it makes sense economically. I ask Tom if he can see such measures being widely adopted. He is optimistic, he says, “but you need a few pioneers that make it financially attractive. You need more conventional farmers to think, ‘Hang on, I’m worried about this disease, worried about that disease, spending money on medicines and pesticides for maize, and you’re inside watching Corrie, while your cows do their own thing.’”
A young man in his mid-thirties, Tom Calver is energetic and innovative, with a bakery in Bath to which he sells the heritage grain he’s started growing. Homemade veal salami is also in the pipeline. He is one of the new faces of cheesemaking: fresh, forward-looking, culturally and environmentally switched on. The sight of so many faces like his manning stands in Bra is heartening for cheese-loving environmentalists and retailers like David Lockwood and Mons Cheesemongers’ Jon Thrupp, who fear the death of ancient cheesemaking traditions. And, of course, for the cheesemakers themselves. “It has been good for me to see,” says Dutchman Joost Van Schie, who has just moved back to his family farm and dairy after a long stint as an economist in Amsterdam. “It can feel narrowing, to be situated on the island again after living in a city for such a long time. Seeing young people, seeing that there is an international cheese community—it makes me feel that so much is possible.” He has, he says “a zillion ideas” for improving soil and water quality and biodiversity. The reason for coming here was less to get more ideas than to “get a collective view about what’s going on in food and farming; to be part of an international movement to make raw milk cheese more sustainable.” Before Bra, he felt he had to choose between farming and being part of an international community. Now, he says, “it feels like and-and rather than and-or.”
An increasingly viable life choice
Considered in isolation, Joost and Tom can feel like an exception. But this cheese festival proves a return to the countryside is, if not the rule, then an increasingly viable life choice. “In Amsterdam, a lot of people are experiencing burn-out and depression, and are looking for a better way of life,” says Joost. “Last year there was an event in the city where people who wanted to be farmers could come and learn about the profession. It sold out within a day.” Joost was lucky: his family already had a farm in the Netherlands, producing gouda-style Dutch cheese for various retailers—including Borough Cheese Company at the Market—and his father was relieved to have an apprentice who was not “infected by the school of agriculture”, as Van Schie senior puts it. Yet a lack of farm or farming stock has not stopped young (or youngish) people becoming cheesemakers. On the contrary, says Neal’s Yard Dairy’s David, “we have over the years brought many people—Bill Oglethorpe of Kappacasein, Martin Gott of St James Cheese, Dave Holton of Blackwoods Cheese Company—to Bra who had just started out making cheese, just so they could see the bigger picture.”
This gentle generational shift is by no means confined to cheesemakers. Slow Food International has many a young buck chomping at the bit for change in the cheese world. “The nice thing about Slow Food is that it is designed to be edgy,” says Francis Percival, a food and cheese writer, who wrote Reinventing the Wheel along with his wife Bronwen Percival, the lead buyer for Neal’s Yard Diary. “It is not so much a celebration of the industry as it is a celebration of what the industry could be. And that’s very far-sighted.” Its future leaders, currently in second tier roles at the organisation but in rapid ascendancy, “are very clever at cross-cultural communication, very aware of how we can get the best return for our resources and will take Slow Food from strength to strength.”
Two years ago, Slow Food’s leaders took the gutsy decision to only allow raw milk cheeses to be exhibited here at Bra. By 2021, they hope to only host those using natural fermentation, as opposed to bought-in starter cultures. These decisions are not without (often legitimate) controversy among both makers and retailers, but they do have the benefit of fuelling discussions and reigniting techniques that might otherwise die out.
A difficult manoeuvre
Looking forward by looking backwards is a difficult manoeuvre—but Slow Food and the cheesemakers it supports seem to be managing it. The Slow Food Presidia—a label established to identify, protect and promote ancient and endangered food products and processes—has proved fundamental in sustaining traditional methods at risk of extinction, as well as protecting unique regions, ecosystems and native breeds and plant varieties.
On Presidia Street, the cobbled street where 59 Presidia cheeses are represented, we find Jamie Montgomery, Todd Trethowan and Tom Calver standing shoulder to shoulder, representing artisanal Somerset cheddar: one of the few British Slow Food Presidia cheeses. “It’s one of the few opportunities we get to really speak to people who might not otherwise know that this is how all cheddar used to be made; that there were once 400 artisanal cheddar makers in Somerset and now there are only three; that although we make the same cheese within five miles of each other, there is great diversity of flavour,” says Jamie Montgomery. “It’s impossible to measure the benefit I get from being here quantifiably, but it feels like people are likely to remember this distinction and value it. It feels right.”
After all, as my conversations with continental cheesemakers reveal, the one cheese everyone associates with Britain is cheddar—albeit rarely that of the quality Jamie, Todd and Tom are making. By placing makers of artisanal Somerset cheddar in the same box—and, quite literally, on the same street in Bra—as farmhouse camembert and aged artisanal gouda, Slow Food highlights the distinction between the pale industrial cheddar imitations that continental customers might have seen in supermarkets and the real, artisanal deal. “The function of the presidia is to make sure people know what is going on with these cheeses and to keep those traditions alive,” says David of Neal’s Yard Dairy simply. Jon of Mons Cheesemongers agrees: “That is the fear: that the people and the techniques and the recipes for these ancient cheeses will ultimately die out.”
At times, the challenges faced by these cheesemakers seem almost insurmountable: climate change, hostility to raw milk at government level—not to mention the wider devaluation of food, particularly in this country. “If you want to change the food system you need to change the amount we pay for accommodation. In Britain, we pay proportionately very little for food and too much for housing,” Francis tells me. The same is true of the USA and is becoming increasingly true of other European countries, Jon fears. Nevertheless, what I felt while wandering the stall-lined streets of Bra, chatting to makers, mongers and maturers, was optimism: an optimism, moreover, that couldn’t entirely be attributed to the early availability of beer.
“There aren’t many industries like this; where knowledge is shared and people help each other across the community,” David muses, after the fourth or fifth cheesemaker passes us and says a cheery “hello” to him. “It’s a real, organic network, not a telecommunications thing,” Mateo rejoins. “It’s something tangible that can be leveraged in a meaningful way. For me and my team, the festival is about connecting to the broader community and seeing our place in it.” There is power in numbers, be they maturers, mongers or microbes—and if anything tells us that, it’s cheese.