This year, the ninth edition of Slow Food Cheese Festival in Bra had a timely theme. As the signs for the festival said, the “Ark of Taste docks at Cheese,” and what a dock it was indeed.
At first glance, the festival seemed to be a gastronomic lacto paradise. There were, at best probably several hundred different varieties of cheeses from all over Europe, the Balkans, Africa, the Americas and some parts of Asia. I never knew there were so many different, distinct ways to make my personal favorite food group, but here in Bra, for the 250,000 attendees from all over the globe, we got to taste, smell, see and pair with wines, beers and ciders the worlds finest artisan and heirloom cheeses for a glorious long warm weekend in September. After I attended workshops and networked with the representatives of the Balkan Cheese Presidia’s and American artisan producers, my appreciation for the global importance of Cheese has, well, transformed.
For me personally, the trip to Bra is the closest thing to a Slow Food Pilgrimage that I could think of, to come to the city where our global headquarters is located. As with other Terra Madres and International Slow Food events, the truly international scope of the Slow Food Movement becomes very apparent at this gathering for Cheese 2013. Because of my heritage, I have an affinity with the Macedonian Slow Food Chapters and have been documenting their progress since I met them at Terra Madre 2008. My Baba made many of the cheeses that have been featured in the Macedonian Ark of Taste, and I have enjoyed them on my visits to Macedonia, as I have family that lives within the Cheese Making Mavrovo Reka Mountain Pasture Cheese region where the delicious Sharplanska White Cheese, Kashkaval and Bieno Sirenje Cheeses are made.
This year, a featured initiative for Cheese 2013 was a truly revolutionary project for Slow Food; the project is called ESSEDRA. The name is short for Environmentally Sustainable Socio Economic Development of Rural Areas, and is a joint project between Slow Food International, the European Union, and the UN Farm and Agriculture Organization among others. ESSEDRA works with local Slow Food Chapters in the Balkans and Turkey to help map culinary and agricultural products insuring their protection as these nations strive to meet and compete with modern food production standards.
I asked Slow Food ESSEDRA Financial Management officer Matteo Pizzi, why the Balkans as the first ever project of ESSEDRA? He replied that these nations, (Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Republic of Macedonia, Romania, Serbia and Turkey) are most at risk of losing their agricultural and culinary treasures through globalization. In these regions for various historical and political reasons, many food way traditions date back to Roman times, and it would be a catastrophe for biodiversity as well as local economies if they were lost due to the drive for standardization. I was blessed to accompany the Macedonian delegation, and got to hear their reflections on the events of the festival. One of the Macedonian Cheese Delegation members, Professor Sonja Srbinovska of the Agricultural Faculty at the University of Skopje told me of the difficulties for her nation of mostly independent rural dairy farmers. She stated that nearly 72% of all dairy farms in Macedonia have five or less cows, and if forced to compete with large EU nations and their subsidized big dairies could spell the end of the traditional way of life (a delicious one I might add,) in her nation.
Small Dairy Farmer outside of Prilep Macedonia, taking his cows to Pasture
Dr. Srbinovska said her tiny Republic of 2 million people did not have the money to lobby for allowances for the traditional cheese making traditions at The Hague. ESSEDRA provided for the joining of forces of many nations, formerly bitter enemies, to keep their shared but unique traditions and economic opportunities alive. Through what seemed endless meetings on standardizations and best practices, to the delight of both Srbinovska and Pizzi, it seems that cheese makers in Spain are also having the same difficulties, and the efforts of Slow Food and ESSEDRA are helping to bridge nations and rural peoples throughout Europe to share strategies to meet standards and maintain traditional cheeses.
Traditional Romanian Sheep Cheese Fermented in Pine Bark
I learned in Bra through numerous Biodiversity of Milk workshops, the natural regional microbes of a geographic area are what gives the unique taste to their fermented products. The biologically active agents that create fermentation of dairy products into the incredible diversity of cheeses of the world are filled with what fermentation experts call the “symphony of milk background qualities.” This “symphony” by the way is destroyed by pasteurization, and is enhanced by allowing animals to eat local grasses, herbs and hay. Such bioactive compounds also allow for the successful interaction of human physiology with the external environment, protecting from allergies and asthma, and enhancing immunity.
Slow Food USA members have much to learn from the ESSEDRA project. While not the first, it is the most ambitious cooperation Slow Food International has had with a government body to promote and protect culinary biodiversity via the Ark of Taste. While we US Slow Foodies love our cheese, wine, heirloom vegetables and fruits, what truly inspires us is the desire to change our industrial food system. We want current and future generations to have access to the foods we treasure, and we want those who produce these gems to be compensated fairly for their labor. ESSEDRA is a practical model for how this can be done, and we in the States need to pay attention as to how it is progressing in the Balkans and adapt these efforts for our own food system
I came away with a new appreciation for the “Terroir of Milk” from this amazing festival. I learned that regional taste means more than excellent qualifiers, it means a true relationship to an ecology between humans and the earth. Preserving the worlds best and most endangered cheeses seems to be actually the doorway to global peace, economic prosperity, environmental integrity, and a whole lot of fantastically good eating. Really, who could ask for anything more?