CHEESE is a biennial global festival of all things dairy hosted by Slow Food. My first time attending was in 2019. It was an overwhelming experience. What an exciting event. So much to taste and so little time. In just 24 spectacular hours two years ago I experienced all the feelings.
2019 Cheese Festival recap
There were hugs at the Neal’s Yard Dairy stand.
Tears of joy at Jasper Hill Farms.
Heart shaped eyes at Point Reyes.
Pulling a sudden “The hills are alive” amid Austrian and Swiss Alpine floral delights.
Getting lost in a sea of Portuguese ovine cheese.
More Vermont pride at Spring Brook Farm.
Considering building an edible cottage of Ragusano DOP bricks.
Being offered free Leicestershire blue in the street
I was also kindly asked to step away from the Castagna stand for taking over the Gorgonzola-filled gelato station.
I met old acquaintances and cheesemakers showcased in my cheese show. Some expressed their ongoing gratitude for the feature with ginormous free samples of their precious products for me to bring home. The train ride back was comedy.
I almost managed to meet Madame Fromage in person (unsuccessfully because of a timetable snafu)
I stalked Liz Thorpe and when she finally noticed me lurking in a corner, instead of calling security, she cast me a knowing look and struck quick conversation. We curd nerds know.
This time was different. Fewer participating cheesemakers, fewer wheels cut open for communal tasting. The crowds were equally big, but almost everyone wore masks and indoor events admitted Green Pass holders only. It was a more mellow edition, but exciting nonetheless. Because, cheese.
This edition’s theme was “Consider the animals” which meant most of the Slow Food Presidium producers were breeders. People driven by passion, dedication and who sacrifice everything for their animals and the milk.
I was also particularly excited about the fellows in brown robes and silly hats parading to triumphant march music at dinner.
Let me explain.
Bra, home of Slow Food
Bra is the curious name of the village in Piemonte that hosts the Cheese festival every two years, it’s the birthplace of the Slow Food movement and it also gives its name to really good cow’s milk cheese. This year attending an international event like this was special on so many levels. It was my first time back on a train. The first time I was venturing out of my Rome comfort zone, further north than Tuscany. My first time back at a cheese event.
This edition of the Cheese festival was also the occasion for the 579th Induction Chapter of a cheese society, the Guilde Internationale des Fromagers. I learned about the Guild earlier in 2019 when I was on the tasting jury of their annual Palio del Burro e del Formaggio: a single elimination tournament for cheese and butter makers.
Needless to say, during the course of these events, the Guild members, the President of the Italy division and the Provost and I have grown close. We occasionally bumped into each other at other cheese events and over the course of these past two years we formed a brigade of fun loving lacto-dependent epicures of all ages, geographical and professional provenance.
These guild members are so crazy about cheese that they have channelled their passion into a confraternity. As a non-profit organization, the guild’s mission is to promote the nobility of dairy products and the work of women and men engaged in this sector. The guild is connected with the Confrérie de St. Uguzon, a cheese fellowship whose purpose is to transmit knowledge through cheese companionship. Created in France, the organization is now present in Switzerland and all over Europe, extending its work to 36 countries worldwide.
A little history
In 1969, Pierre Androuet––later the founding provost of the Confrérie––while doing research in the writings of XVI century canonization, learned of a shepherd-cheesemaker from the Cavargna valley on the Swiss-Italian border, near Lugano. Known as Lucio aka Uguccione aka Uguzon, he was the first to acknowledge the importance of thermal cheese making. Using this technique the shepherd produced more cheese than others in the area, and offered the extra wheels to the poor and most disadvantaged. Until his master found out.
As punishment, Lucio/Uguzon was brutally tortured and killed. For this reason the Catholic Church worships him as a Saint. Some believe that in the very spot where he was killed, there is a natural spring with healing virtues for eye diseases. He is the patron saint of cheesemakers, herds, shepherds and the poor.
The Guilde Internationale des Fromagers welcomes professional cheesemakers, dairy breeders, affineurs, traders and retailers. The Confrérie de St. Uguzon is reserved to amateurs and gastronomes: chefs and restaurateurs, food scientists, journalists, aficionados and cheese lovers.
Each year, new members are co-opted at “induction chapters,” that is, appointed to membership only by invitation of existing members. There are about fifteen induction chapters organized each year, worldwide. In Italy, the most important chapter is the one held during the Cheese festival.
Many of the honorable members have now become good friends of mine.
After a terrible 18 months of solitude, loss, fear and economic struggles, I was very much looking forward to attending the Cheese festival again this year. Not only for the tastings and smiles. But for a very special occasion.
I’m not one to brag. But on September 18th, 2021 at Castello di Cherasco not far from Bra, at the 579th Induction Chapter, I was “knighted” Compagnon d’Honneur by the Prévôt, welcomed into the Guild as a new member of the Confrérie de St. Uguzon Confraternita di San Lucio. Only a few in Italy have had the privilege of joining this prestigious confraternity. This, in short, is a big deal.
The location was spectacular, the dinner was amazing, the wine flowed and the cheese plateau abundant. My son was there with me and we had a great time. An evening during which I celebrated with old and new friends. Laughter, fine food and spreading cheese culture is what the Guild is all about. I will never forget the proud look on my son’s face when I received my medal. I can’t wait to see what happens next.
Plus, at the next gathering, I get to wear the robe and hat!