Monday, October 5, 2009

Cheese! Fest, 2009

Finally the meals have digested, and I am ready to talk about 'Cheese,' Slow Food's festival celebrating all things formaggio in Bra, Italy (see link for photos). I attended the four day event with Aviv and Michal, two very good friends from Calgary, and spent the whole time trying to remember what it feels like to be hungry.

I began the festivities by missing my train from Torino to Bra. By a full hour, actually, because I neglected to change my clock to Italian time after being in London. I had agreed to meet Aviv and Michal at 11:00 am, none of us had a phone, the next train didn't depart until late afternoon, and we were scheduled for a workshop at 1:00 pm. So, a great deal of panic and one very expensive cab-ride later, I was reunited with Michal and Aviv and glad that my stupidity didn't have to affect anything else but my bank account. Together and happy to be speaking English, we headed off to explore the endless white tents spread throughout the winding lanes of Bra.

As part of the festival, Slow Food organizes an impressive number of educational programs, including 'Taste' and 'Masters of Food' workshops. We had signed up for three, and our first was held in a conference room that looked like a miniature United Nations complete with

headsets and an English translator (although I presume the UN does not lay out multiple wine glasses at each of their seats. They ought to try it, I think diplomacy would be at its best). Our first workshop, featuring five French affineurs, quickly went from sophisticated to shit-show when the fire alarm went off just as we were about to begin. Do not fear! The highly-capable Italian fire department is coming to set things right! Wrong. They showed up and scratched their heads (literally) for over an hour while it continued to scream. During this time we waited outside, drank some champagne, and grilled the friendly English translator for the best places to eat in Torino. Eventually they tried to proceed and all at once we attempted to listen to a man speaking in French, hear the translation through our headsets, and ignore the blaring sound of the alarm with a constant recording in Italian warning us to leave the building.

The alarm finally ceased, though I'm nearly certain this is because a battery died and not because they figured anything out. Disappointing, yet the beaufort was still delicious, the attendees gracious, and we now know Torino's best restaurants. My advice, however, would be to avoid burning buildings while in Italy, unless you plan on saving yourself. After this little adventure we spent the rest of the day exploring the festival, sampling cheeses, and failing to identify the fine line between 'full' and 'ill.'

One day we took a break from the festival and were treated to a tour of the Piemontese region by Lior, Michal's childhood friend from Israel. He took us into the mountains north of Torino, we walked to a beautiful old bridge crossing the Po River, and visited the town of Asti to see the Il Palio festivities. Asti, as well as the Tuscan town of Siena, has an annual horse race in which horses representing local villages participate in an intense and sometimes dangerous competition. It all starts with a medieval parade featuring drummers, trumpeteers, flag-throwers, and all kinds of elaborate costumes, floats and dramatic acts. We were hugely impressed, as well as hugely late in returning to Bra for our second taste workshop, which we missed. 0 for 2. So far we were failing to receive our official cheese education, but the parade was worth it.

During the festival we spent many hours touring the massive tents which housed the Italian, European, and International cheeses, even spotting Carlo Petrini (the founder of Slow Food) at one point. We were overwhelmed with the variety, the vendors' gorgeous displays, and the sheer amount of food. There were literally tonnes of cheese; hundreds upon hundreds of wheels, stands with honey and balsamic and antipastos, and more samples than one girl could handle.

As always, the most extreme tastes are the ones which come to mind. We tried 'brus,' a creamy concoction which looks smooth and delectable. It is absolutely NOT, I assure you. When Michal tried it she screamed and shouted something profane which made me laugh so hard I couldn't keep my camera steady and capture her agonized face.

In the international tent we found some small French cheeses that looked like they'd been scraped from the side of a sunken ship. Through translation we learned that these cheeses must be eaten with whiskey (wine is too weak), or else they'll take three days to digest. This makes sense, since anything that sunk with the Titanic would need a little help in the stomach.

We finished off our festival experience with a dinner at a small castle in Verduno, which was delicious and as usual, way too filling. This was the third of three major dinners in a row; our first night of dining was at La Taverna Tre Gufi, an authentic and unpretentious little restaurant where we were treated to dinner by Lior and his wife Nadia. We took our server's offer of trying a “little bit of everything.”

A little bit of everything meant that once we had downed five substantial plates we learned we had only just completed the starters. And so, eleven different dishes later, we finally concluded. That would be sixteen in total, my friends. Another fine quality of this meal was our server, a gorgeous man with dark curly hair and blue eyes whom I idiotically asked “parlez-vous francais?” when he told us his mother was a language teacher. Asking a question in a certain language usually implies that you speak it, non? Well I don't. He rambled on to me in French and I nodded and smiled and pretended I knew exactly what he was saying. Fortunately, the only thing he asked me to translate was the dessert – and what were we eating? Parfait. PHEW.

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