International Cheesemakers Find Inspiration at Cheese

The Americans are coming – and the British and Irish. This year Cheese, Slow Food’s biannual international exhibition of quality cheese, is more international than ever, with a strong presence from the United Kingdom, Ireland and the United States, countries whose cheese production is often dismissed as industrial and lacking character.
To counter these prejudices, producers, cheesemongers and affineurs are displaying some of the best examples of their artisanal cheeses in Bra’s streets and piazzas, and American, Irish and British cheeses have also featured in Taste Workshops.
Cheese 2009 sees the first appearance of an American company in the “Via degli Affinatori,” the space dedicated to companies that sell cheeses from different producers. Atlanta Foods International imports cheese from all over the world for the US market, but the staff is particularly passionate about American cheese, as sales manager Brian Scott explained. Two of their featured cheeses are Rogue River Blue, an award-winning blue (“robust, for food connoisseurs, good with big wines”) and Red Hawk from Cowgirl Creamery (“an organic, washed-rind triple cream, really special”), and the company also brought over some of the cheesemakers to help present the cheeses at Bra. “The Red Hawk producers can even tell you the names of their herds,” said Scott.
Jeff Roberts, author of The Atlas of American Artisan Cheese and co-founder of the Vermont Institute for Artisan Cheese at the University of Vermont, was also at Cheese, leading a Taste Workshop on cheese and beer from the USA. He reminisced about the first time the country’s cheeses were properly represented at Cheese, in 2001, and the warm, emotional welcome the “amici americani” received from the town just a few weeks after September 11th. “It was extraordinary. We had debated whether to come or not but we thought it would be a way to bring people together. The community here in Bra really opened its arms, at the opening ceremony everyone was clapping for us, in tears. We had people eight to ten deep at the stand the whole weekend.”
Roberts emphasized that Cheese was still bringing people together: “Many producers come to Bra, spend time with Italian producers, share inspiration or techniques. Slow knowledge is not picked up from a book. Here colleagues wander around, talking to other producers, building a network of relationships.”
British and Irish cheesemakers present at Cheese also talked about the importance of the community. Jamie Montgomery, who makes Slow Food Presidium Artisan Somerset Cheddar in the UK, said: “People think we stand for something set in stone, but that’s not the case. We have our principles – raw milk, our own cows, wrapping the cheese in cloth – and that totality won’t change, but within that we have to be flexible.”
A third-generation cheesemaker, he said many new ideas come from the past, but that Cheese was also of great importance.
Fifth-generation Cheddar maker George Keen, whose cheeses also belong to the Presidium, confirmed this. “We get to taste other people’s cheeses, and sometimes we even find out that problems in our cheeses are actually their style. It’s inspirational to be a member of this big club. It inspires us to go home and try different ideas and be more open-minded.”
Silke Cropp is from Germany, but moved to Ireland 30 years ago. She started making cheese five years later. “I fell into cheesemaking, there was no good cheese you could buy and we had one goat for the children that was producing too much milk, so I started making cheese. I experimented. It took a while.”
Her company, Corleggy Cheese, now makes cow’s, goat’s and sheep’s milk cheeses, and her raw cow’s milk Drumlin is part of the Slow Food Irish Raw Milk Cheeses Presidium. She has been to all seven Cheese editions, but this is her second year with a stand. “Cheese has really opened my mind to not being shy, to experimenting. There are cheeses here that would be unthought-of in Ireland, wacky cheeses. It gives me great energy to go back and carry on.”
Randolph Hodgson, whose Neal’s Yard Dairy from the UK is a big presence in the Via degli Affinatori, also praised the atmosphere at Cheese. “We are not just here to sell, but for the atmosphere. For the staff who work in London to come here and hear the Italians giving their opinions is very uplifting.”
Of the Via degli Affinatori, he said: “It’s nice to have this forum to talk to other affineurs. On the face of it we’re competing, but really we’re all competing against fast food.”
Hodgson has brought 18 cheesemakers with him to Bra. “Traceability is huge. What’s been wrong is in the middle we’ve been hiding the name of the producer, when we should be promoting them, giving the picture of where the cheese is from, the animals, the landscape. It’s great that we have producers here as well. In the end, we’re just a dating agency.”

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