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Updated: May 21, 2014 16:04 IST

A big cheese

Shonali Muthalaly
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LOOKING FOR FLAVOUR? The fair aims at educating consumers on quality food PHOTO: SLOW FOOD ARCHIVES
LOOKING FOR FLAVOUR? The fair aims at educating consumers on quality food PHOTO: SLOW FOOD ARCHIVES

The world of cheese is complex and alluring, full of colourful histories and intricate flavours. For most of us, brought up on bland commercial cheese in cans, slices and plastic tubs, it’s difficult to really understand the colourful histories, local colour and intricate flavours that can be conveyed in a single mouthful of intense artesian cheese.

There’s the drama of wine: vineyards, barefoot grape crushing and heady dinner dates. The romance of cigars: oak panelled bars, smoky seduction, blatant luxury. The cheer of beer: adventurous road trips, lunch at the beach, wild college parties. And then there’s cheese, which manages to bring it all together.

For most of us, brought up on bland commercial cheese in cans, slices and plastic tubs, it’s difficult to really understand the colourful histories, local colour and intricate flavours that can be conveyed in a single mouthful of intense artesian cheese. Heidi in the mountains. Barefoot goatherds. Cows grazing on hills carpeted in flowers. These are all images in children’s picture books, which seem a world away from the reality of a regular burger blanketed in slices of creamy but characterless cheese.

The world of cheese is both complex and alluring. Fortunately, Slow Food’s Cheese – Milk in All its Shapes and Forms (which will be held between September 18-21 in Bra, Piedmont, Italy) works towards preserving, encouraging and promoting its diversity. The festival, a bi-annual event that has been running for 12 years, has evolved with time into an international reference point for dairy artisans and cheese enthusiasts.

Which is what brings us to the wine, beers and cigars. The taste workshops scheduled include sampling Parmigiano-Reggiano with unpasteurised, unfiltered Italian beers. There’s also a class on Pit-Aged Cheeses with Beer, and one on Cheese and Wine from the Loire. Think that sounds like fun? It gets better. There’s a guided smoking of Antica Riserva Toscano cigars along with beers paired with artisanal cheeses of different ages. And a delightfully quirky Bees, Cheese, Teas session led by a nomadic bee keeper, to describe how pollination determines bio-diversity where cows graze and thus sensory richness of raw-milk cheeses.

In an e-mail interview, Piero Sardo, who is one of Italy’s most important cheese experts and also president of the Slow Food Foundation for Bio-diversity, talks of how the fair focuses on “the importance of taste education and promotion of artisanal cheese.” Discussing how the two are interconnected, he says Slow Food aims at educating consumers to recognise quality food, encouraging them to choose it over cheaper more-commercial options.

After all, if you don’t experiment, and simply settle for what’s in the supermarket, the world will gradually lose some of its most interesting flavours. Already, thanks to globalisations world tastes are becoming increasingly flattened and standardised.

While artisanal production on a large scale is impossible, these are the best kinds of cheese that can be found, says Sardo, adding “it is possible to find industrial cheese of quite good quality, but they won’t have complexity of taste and flavour: they don’t contain rich nutrients and they contain preservatives and a certain quantity of chemical agents.” He adds that artisanal productions also safeguard local economies.

Quality starts right from the milk, which tastes different if animals have been reared with real grass instead of being industrially bred. The difference in flavours is really quite astounding, especially if you’ve been brought up on industrial cheese. Sardo talks of how tasting should involve all the five senses: “judge quality from the observation of the cheese look (rind, colour, paste…). Smell and be astonished by the many characteristics of the artisanal cheese that can be fruity, milky, toasted, spicy, smoked. The flavour can be sweet, sour, salty, bitter and it can have various degrees of persistence.” While cheese has always flourished in Europe, this fair is also introducing surprises like Brazilian cheese and a special kind of yogurt from Kenya. It’s not just the difference in the taste of milk. Cheese around the world can be aged in leaves, flowers or mountain hay. Even wild spinach. There’s buffalo cheese aged in myrtle and a pecorino made with wild Mediterranean herbs. If you think about it, cheeses are like people, in many ways. You need to get to know them before you enjoy their quirks. And diversity is really what keeps the romance alive.

Keywords: Slow Food Cheese

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