4 Days of Cheese: Eating and Smuggling at a Slow Food Festival
Like everyone who traveled to get to the event in Bra, Italy, I came with an empty bag, which was stuffed with heavy blocks of cheese when I left
Last week, while the rest of the food world was speculating over who should replace the great Sam Sifton as he ascends inexorably to editor-ship of the New York Times, the trajectory I've long considered appropriate for former food critics (I've got my own favorite for his successor, but I'm hoping, not telling), I was on a semi-annual gig teaching writing at Slow Food's University of Gastronomic Science's master's program. I also got to stay on for two days to sample the endless varieties of cheese at Slow Food's event called, simply, Cheese, which for four days every two years turns the center of its founding city, Bra, into a day-and-night festival that brings back not just former university students but the world's big-cheese cheeses (surely I'm the first to think of that). If you're anywhere near Turin, Italy, today, head over! The revelry went on past midnight during the two days I got to be there. Writing and cheese, naturally, were on my mind -- and in my bags coming home.
Seeing so many talented students gathered at the same time reminded me that I've wanted to point out for a while now that some of the Life Channel's most interesting pieces have come from graduates -- including just last week Pascale Brevet's provocative piece applying the principles of Slow Food to fashion (she long worked in the fashion business -- like many students, she's a career-changer) and Jesse Dart's description of the challenges facing young farmers in Italy who haven't inherited land, which is unaffordable, but who want to in their parents' eyes throw away their educations by raising food. They face many of the same problems that confront young farmers in this country, but in Italy, surprisingly, the food movement is young and undeveloped compared with here, even if the food traditions remain much stronger and clearer than ours. And a few weeks ago we had Daisy Freund on how animal welfare can result in measurably better pork and, of course, jamon and prosciutto (did you know about pale soft exudative, a consequence of abuse? Read her piece). She's now managing a restaurant in Rwanda staffed entirely by orphans of the genocide, about which I hope she'll be sending us dispatches. Students do interesting things, before and after they sign up for the master's year (much of which is spent traveling).
It also brought my attention again to a passage I think worth remembering for anyone who writes about food, from the book I assign students because I think the writing is exemplary: Jane Grigson's Vegetable Book, whose every (short, alphabetical) chapter is a gem of history, close observation, and precise, humorous writing shot through with lightly worn erudition and history and literature. In praising Elizabeth David, who is as great as MFK Fisher is said to be (yes, that's a glancing slight), Grigson was describing both herself and what I think good food and specifically recipe writing should be:
The following year, 1950, Elizabeth David published her first book, A Book of Mediterranean Food. I bought it and re-lived my first journey to Italy. Ostensibly she wrote about Mediterranean and French food, in the days when we were still caught up in rationing, and memories of snoek and the Woolton Pie. If you look at it superficially, she was writing cookery escapism. In reality, she was doing far more. Her recipes were authentic and encouraging; her information was full and evocative. She asserted what all food should or could be, clear principles of simplicity, flavour and freshness that could be practised wherever the reader lived, with whatever materials could be found. In doing this she also upturned a century of poor cookery, when plain living was so often mean living as far as food was concerned, good living so often pretentiousness.
Accessibility, plainspokenness, a clear personality that shows through but never dominates the subject at hand, information readers need for successful results -- David and Grigson always merit rereading and show the way for succeeding generations, including the students I got to see again and the new ones I met last week.
Like everyone who traveled to get to the event, I came with an empty bag, which I stuffed with heavy blocks of cheese. These I declared in advance to the people watching the airport scanners (I've too many times had bags taken apart because blocks of cheese, like those of chocolate, apparently look like explosives-creating plastique) and to U.S. Customs -- though I didn't do what most American cheese-lovers love to recount doing, smuggling in raw-milk cheeses aged under 60 days, which is supposedly illegal but not even discussed on this U.S. Customs page about food allowed in for personal use (though the page does say that "cheese in liquid," including cottage cheese and ricotta, isn't allowed in from countries that have had foot and mouth disease -- who knew? And wouldn't they be considered gels anyway?).
I didn't pull the Jeffrey Steingarten stunt of specifying "raw milk cheese, aged under 60 days" on the Customs form (the agent waved him through), but I did take the bait when a woman in the Delikatessen at the Amsterdam airport, where I changed planes, asked, when I sought help on interesting Goudas, "You're going back to the U.S.? Then this isn't for you," waving me away from by far the best-looking of the unappealingly industrial Goudas I saw. "Why?" I asked. "It's raw-milk," she said. "You can't bring it in." Just watch, I thought, and bought a whole wheel from a Netherlandish co-operative called De Producent (website here, picture of actual wheel topmost here). I sailed through Customs, having checked the box marked "food" and telling the agent about all the cheese I brought in.
My reward for daring: dull cheese. The aged Gouda, which the shop featured and which of course cost a good deal more than the others, would have been much better. As it happened, my spouse had bought two kinds of Gouda while I was gone, one an incredibly bland import from Trader Joe's and the other a deep-orange two-year-old Gouda from our new local supplier, Central Bottle (our national star is Formaggio Kitchen, whose owner, Ihsan Gurdal, was circulating the streets of Bra looking for new discoveries). Maureen Rubino, the owner, told me that she got the Gouda from L'Amuse, a Netherlandish affineur, and sent me Daphne Zepos, whose work at Essex St. Cheese, of which she's a founder, has kept her too busy too contribute of late. Or so she told me at Cheese, where she was of course roaming the streets, along with her Essex St. cofounder Jason Hinds, also a partner of Neals Yard, in London (I told you all the big cheeses were there, and yes, I know I should resist).
I learned one lesson, I guess: young cheese, to which I'm drawn for its fresher, often livelier flavor -- I had to ask the representatives of the Slow Food "presidium," meaning protected and featured variety, for white Modenese cattle to sell me Parmigiano-Reggiano less than three years old -- isn't always better. (Parmigiano lovers have all heard of Vacche Rosse, red cattle, whose milk is thought to make superior cheese. Now they need to know about Vacche Bianche, which aren't nearly as well publicized but also make a sought-after Parmesan.) Next time I'll be the Customs daredevil everyone I know is, and bring in a smelly block of ripe Reblochon instead of only savoring it near its home turf. And much sooner, I'll look forward to the original work coming from the young writers I encountered around every cheese-booth-lined corner, and their counterparts here.
Image: Slow Food Cheese.