One of the greatest pleasures of exploring small European towns is the constant sense of discovery. Losing yourself in mazes of small streets, the colours, the smells, surprises around every turn. Two weeks ago, on a bright morning in Bra, Italy, a group of bleary-eyed cheesemongers wound their way through this bustling town to visit the maturing rooms of Giorgio Cravero. We were there after some full-on days selling cheese at the Slow Food festival ‘Cheese’ which takes over the town of Bra every two years. The reason we were so curious to visit Giorgio’s place was that he is the third-generation affineur of the Parmigiano San Pietro 2659 that we sell, as well as the limited-run cheese Centosettanta. Rolling our suitcases through the centre of town, we suddenly found ourselves in a quiet, residential street, not at all where we’d expect to find an enterprise holding thousands of wheels of cheese quietly maturing away. But lo and behold, a small sign at the head of a narrow driveway indicated we had arrived at Cravero.
We stepped tentatively through wrought iron gates into a cobblestone courtyard, feeling like we were stepping back in time. Giorgio Cravero smiled as he explained that this old Italian farmhouse has been his family’s home, as well as their maturing space, since the 1960s. To our left was a traditional L-shaped Italian farmhouse, beautifully restored, with traditional wooden shutters and dark ivy climbing the white walls. It is within these thick walls that Cravero’s wheels develop into the soft, succulent cheese that we know and love. But first, Giorgio led us to the terrace, which overlooks a breathtaking view of the green valley below, with the leaves just beginning to turn orange-yellow and the peaks of the pre-Alps in the distance. It was only 8am, the sun was bright and clear while the mist still hung low, and there was a palpable sense of calm.
After admiring the view, we headed inside the maturing rooms. Through an arch of thick wooden doors was a wall of neatly arranged cheeses that stretched far above our heads to the high ceiling. With no marking or branded stamps on their rinds, we realised that this wall represented our remaining stock of Centosettanta, our limited-run of “single origin” cheeses that are named after the 170 of wheels in existence. We expressed surprise at seeing them displayed so prominently at the front of his storeroom and Giorgio laughed. He explained that this is a conscious decision, as it allows him a clear backdrop with visitors to talk about the relationship he has with the cheesemakers and the provenance of the milk. The wall reminded me of a giant abacus – counting down the wheels until this cheese is no more.
Giorgio’s maturing space is a striking juxtaposition of modern and traditional. Wooden beams and stained glass doorways meet precisely constructed shelves and humidity controls. Unlike other Parmigiano-Reggiano affineurs who sometimes heat rooms to hasten maturing time, for most of the year Cravero’s cheeses mature in low, steady temperatures, developing the sweet and creamy flavour profile that we love.
Before leaving to catch our train to the airport, Giorgio showed us his office. On the wall were oil portraits of his family stretching back generations; the history of the Cravero affineurs laid out in front of us. On the table lay an ancient ledger, recording the company’s first transactions in the 1850s. We could have stayed for hours, but we reluctantly set off back into the bustling streets of Bra to the train station, grateful for the chance we had to catch a glimpse of this special practice.
So many of the surprises we find down winding roads can only stay with us as memories, of sights, smells, glimpses into another way of life. In this case, we were happy to know that we had a piece of this hidden discovery in the back streets of Bra already waiting for us at home – on our cheese counter.