• Every two years, cheesemakers gather in Bra to talk, learn and show their wares. (Getty Images / Awakening)
The biennial Cheese festival, hosted by Slow Food International this week in Italy, is a hub for cheese lovers and makers alike.
Alecia Wood

12 Sep 2017 - 2:09 PM  UPDATED 12 Sep 2017 - 6:06 PM

Every two years, the little town of Bra in far northwest Italy transforms into a mecca for cheese lovers and a summit for cheese producers and affineurs. Rows of tents pop up along its quiet streets, proffering samples of artisanal goods made everywhere from France to Vermont and Kenya; small-scale producers from around the world arrive to take part in critical panel talks and workshops; while some 270,000 punters swarm the countryside spot.

The four-day festival, dubbed simply Cheese, is hosted by Slow Food International, which has its headquarters in Bra. “The first edition of Cheese was held 20 years ago, where we gathered signatures in defence of raw milk,” the president of the Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity, Piero Sardo, explains. This year’s event, which includes cheese from Australia, is taking place from September 15 to 18, with a theme – ‘The state of raw milk’ – that harks back to that first petition.

A selection of cheese on display at the previous Cheese festival in Bra.

Why go for a raw milk cheese, rather than one that’s made using pasteurised milk? According to Sardo, it’s not just a better, more complex taste that raw milk cheese offers. “A pasteurised milk loses its territory, it loses the place where the cheese was made, but with a raw milk cheese we keep this strong link,” he says. “The third reason we need to defend it is biodiversity. There’s an invisible biodiversity, composed of billions of bacteria [in milk]. If you pasteurise [milk], these billions of bacteria are slowly exterminated.”

Discovered by French scientist Louis Pasteur during the 19th Century, pasteurisation heats milk to a high temperature, then cools it down quickly in order to destroy potentially pathogenic bacteria like Salmonella, Listeria and E. coli. The process was a major breakthrough for public health, and now features in dairy processing regulations to prevent food borne illnesses and ensure consumer safety.

While there’s a global history of producing cheeses made with raw milk, Slow Food’s position is that these traditions are now under threat because they hold very different values to “the sanitation and homogenisation of mass produced foods”, and that “discriminatory regulations from the European Union, World Trade Organisation, United States' Food and Drug Administration… threaten to destroy the livelihood of the artisan craftsmen who produce them.”

Under Australian law, milk sold to consumers must be pasteurised.  Raw milk enthusiasts claim raw milk offers a number of nutritional benefits and a better flavour. When it comes to raw milk cheese in Australia, recent changes to the Food Standards Code in 2014 broadened its production, although this is still very limited and heavily regulated. “Once you understand how different and wonderful raw milk cheese is, the effort you put into it is so, so worthwhile,” says cheesemaker Kris Lloyd, who runs Woodside Cheese Wrights in South Australia, and is one of a handful of licensed Australian raw milk cheese producers.

Lloyd has attended Cheese several times over the past 14 years, and is due to head to this year’s edition. There, she’ll take part in a workshop dubbed ‘Around the world in 80 cheeses – far lands’, joining a panel of global cheesemakers. A Ukrainian producer will introduce guslyanka, a traditional soured cow’s or sheep’s milk drink, and budz, where sheep’s or cow’s milk curds are hung in a cheesecloth over a fire to smoke over a number of days; from Cape Verde, there’ll be a semi-hard goat’s milk cheese from the Planalto Norte volcanic highlands; plus products such as the Karoo Crumble (a tangy, semi-hard Jersey cow’s milk cheese) from South Africa.

Global affair: a cheese maker from Cape Verde.

“I will be presenting a semi-hard [washed rind] cheese called Harvest,” Lloyd says, explaining that it’s inspired by the French cow’s milk morbier style, which has a layer of ash running through the centre. Lloyd’s riff uses a yoghurt starter culture, as well as ash made by burning Blackwood trees. “What I am trying to bring to my cheesemaking is an individuality – it is about bringing my country and a representation of something I have seen. You will not find this ash anywhere [else] in the world – it is only indigenous to this particular place that I live.”

Australia's offering: a soft cheese with a layer of fine ash indigenous only to Australia

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For Lloyd, taking part in an event that brings together such a broad diversity of cheesemaking techniques, topics and traditions is a chance not only to learn from peers, but to highlight the nature of the Australian industry. “I would call us New World cheesemakers – we don’t have generations of cheesemaking in Australia. For me to be able to bring what we are doing in Australia on such a tiny, tiny scale, to be able to give everybody a little bit of an [idea] of the complexities, the struggles, the hardships that we have about getting [raw milk cheese] across the line, is just a great opportunity,” she says. “As an industry, cheesemakers are very collaborative. I like that we can come together and share information – it may be the learnings, the hardships, or the joyful elements.”

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