Reporting from Bra, Italy: Looking Forward, Looking Back | culture: the word on cheese
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Reporting from Bra, Italy: Looking Forward, Looking Back

Scene from Italy
Every 2 years, Slow Food organizes “Cheese,” a festival dedicated to and named in honor of the preserved preserved milk product. Tucked away in mountains of Piedmont, Bra is a small medieval town that is transformed into a sea of white tents with cheesemongers, cheese-lovers, cheese makers, farmers, food tourists, townspeople all jostling to taste, learn and talk about cheese.

When the staff of Formaggio Kitchen visits Bra, we stay at the hotel of our friend Matteo Ascheri. Here, we talk, eat, reflect and meet small producers of handmade cheese. We have known Matteo for many years, since before the start of Cheese and we were very pleased when he opened his hotel right over the railroad tracks from the center of town. From the hotel can walk to the home or our good friends, Giorgio and Barbra Cravero. We are so fortunate to have a modern hotel in such a convenient location- and the popularity of the hotel has rapidly increased. It seems like everyone we need to see stays at Cantine Ascheri: we are able to reconnect with Phillipe from Marcel Petite, Betty and Martin of L’Amuse, Will Studd from Australia, Andy Kehler from Jasper Hill Farm, Jason Hinds and and the crew from Neal’s Yard Dairy. At Cantine Ascheri, we get a global snapshot of the latest industry news, over late night elixirs on the rooftop overlooking the town.

One tradition that I look forward to is the big meal hosted by Giorgio Cravero-Giorgio always has a big meal with all his ‘cheese’ friends, on the Thursday evening before the start of Cheese.  Sometimes it will be a big American-style BBQ in the courtyard of his house or cocktails in the new aging room surrounded by row upon row of wheels of his Parmigiano. This year, we had dinner at his sister’s restaurant, Osteria Boccabuona.

Piedmont is home to so many great food products: wine, chestnuts, cookies, pasta, honey, polenta- and we meet with many of these producers as well as cheese purveyors while in Bra. We do tend to fill up our schedule with more meetings than you would think can fit into one day, so there is an awful lot of running around. It is for this reason that the hotel is so important- to have a meeting space to connect with producers- some of which just stop by the hotel- whether late into the evening or early in the morning. Breakfast is one of our favorite meals when we stay at Cantine Ascheri: little raw or cooked veal sausage with eggs, good coffee, and of course cheese- typically Piemontese style toma—semi soft, versatile, and fabulous with all the sliced meats that accompany it.

During the day at Cheese it is possible to literally taste pounds upon pounds of cheese! It is really important to learn how to pace yourself- which can be a hard lesson for first timers. I remember when we brought one of our buyers for the first time- she was so giddy with excitement that she made herself sick! I remember her holding her belly saying “ I think I ate a pound of cheese-” though I’m pretty sure it was more like 10! It’s easy to go overboard with so many exciting new cheeses to try. Don’t go hungry!

Fortified by a big breakfast, we are ready to for a long day of tasting, talking, and observation of the traditions and new trends on display and up for discussion at Cheese.

Valerie Gurdal

Valerie was born and raised in Miami, Fla. In 1980 Valerie spent six months living in Madrid with her aunt and uncle. While living in Madrid Valerie developed a love for the daily market experience each morning she visited her local cheesemonger, baker, meat purveyor and the various fruit and vegetable stands. After this trip, Valerie moved to the Boston area to pursue a college education and decided that she wanted to create a European style shopping market back in Miami after she finished college. Instead, while attending Boston College, she discovered Formaggio Kitchen and met her future husband, Ihsan. To hone her skills in the kitchen, Valerie worked at the well-known Chez Nous in Cambridge and for the catering company Currier and Chives before returning to Formaggio Kitchen. Since then Ihsan and Valerie have worked together to share the "market experience" that inspired their mutual love of food with neighborhoods and communities surrounding their stores.

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