Start planning your 2025 trip to the Bra Cheese Festival now.
“I don’t care if my body gets wet, but I need to protect my cheese.”
It had just started raining when I overheard the passionate sentiment on the street as a fellow festival-goer was fervently trying to stuff a wax paper-wrapped wedge of Gouda under his coat. I was in Bra, a town of about 30,000 people in the northern Italian province of Piedmont, about two hours southwest of Milan. Over the next few days, though, it would swell to 300,000, all coming to attend the Bra Cheese Festival, and all equally as passionate about their cheese as the person protecting their product at all costs.
The international festival started in 1997 and takes place over three days every two years. The brainchild of Slow Food, the global organization with a mission to preserve local food cultures and traditions, it’s the world’s largest festival dedicated to raw milk cheese. Here, attendees can meet “renowned cheese producers from around the world with an opportunity to taste and buy spectacular cheese,” says Anna Juhl, the founder of Cheese Journeys, a boutique travel company that curates food tours in Europe and the U.S., including tours to this very festival.
“The Bra Cheese Festival is like the Burning Man of Cheese,” says Tenaya Darlington, a cheese educator and author who also goes by Madame Fromage. “It attracts the wild cheese people of the world — from Sicilian shepherds to village cheesemakers to families carrying on nearly extinct mountain traditions. During the festival, the Italian town of Bra is completely overtaken by stands and street musicians, and you can wander around tasting cheeses you’ll never find anywhere else, like Monteboré – a famous triple-layer robiola that’s now only produced by one maker.”
While most attendees just gleefully roam around stalls, stopping to sample and buy, I experienced the world’s biggest cheese festival alongside Cheese Journeys, providing a richer experience than I could ever muster on my own.
A former cheese shop owner, Juhl started the company more than a decade ago out of a desire to connect travelers increasingly interested in where their food comes from with legendary, sometimes centuries-old producers. “Until Cheese Journeys, there had not been an opportunity for [non-professional] food enthusiasts to have this back door glimpse into the amazing world of artisan cheese,” she says.
Juhl’s back door glimpses happen on group tours that span iconic dairy destinations, like the Jura and Savoie Regions of France and the Swiss Alps, Belgium and the Netherlands, and London, Somerset, and Bath. The tours typically entail staying in one beautiful place (like a chateau or an English manor) where meals are prepared by a private chef. Itineraries are full of fun cooking demos and a slate of cheese and wine tastings and classes (some led by Darlington and Emilio Mignucci, a third-generation owner at the Philadelphia cheese shop DiBruno Bros.) interspersed with the main draw: visits to private and off-the-beaten-path cheese producers and agers.
“Her tours give cheese enthusiasts access to spaces that are not open to the general public – like Fort Saint Antoine (a labyrinthine Comté cave in the Jura Mountains) and the private home of James Montgomery of award-winning Montgomery’s Cheddar in Somerset, England,” says Darlington.
This particular Bra Cheese Festival tour took place in September 2023, with an eight-day itinerary that went beyond the three-day Slow Food fest. There was a private tour of the Cravero aging facility, where we walked down aisles lined with pine shelves to the ceiling, holding nearly 100-pound rounds of buttery Parmigiano-Reggiano. We visited Slow Food’s University of Gastronomic Sciences, where a staff sommelier led us through a tasting of Piedmont varieties like Barbaresco and Barolo before a peek into the University’s Wine Bank, where thousands of bottles of Italian wine are cataloged for education and preservation. During a visit to her vineyards, we met the winemaker Chiara Boschis, who took a break from harvesting grapes to say hello, before we climbed down into an 18th-century wine cellar to see the storage tanks.
The Cheese Journeys tour particularly shined at the festival, though, with Juhl and her team crafting a thoughtful, insiders-only itinerary that used the same backdoor key to access private tastings, meet and greets with cheese world luminaries (they exist!), and lunch with the makers of Italy’s best butter.
The streets of Bra were lined with stalls from producers, mongers, and affineurs (agers), not to mention musicians and mimes, and folks selling pink balloons and hand-carved cutting boards. With the Cheese Journeys team, though, we wove through gleeful festival goers of all ages — from kids eating buffalo milk gelato to locals sipping plastic cups of orange spritzes and clutching travel coolers to bring home their milky haul — to taste English blue cheese Stichelton, a raw milk version of Stilton. Cheesemaker Joe Schneider has long been a fan of the festival, telling me, “You can walk down the street and have a global cheese experience, meeting makers, tasting cheese — and there’s no cost to enter.” It’s a sea of makers from Italy, France, the Netherlands, and Switzerland, but also from Macedonia, Portugal, Uruguay, Turkey, and beyond. They’re sampling and selling cheeses made with raw cow, sheep, and goat milk, and also milk from yak, camel, and water buffalo.
We met the maker of a pungent and creamy Spanish sheep’s milk cheese made with thistle rennet, and tried slices of Gotthelf Emmental, cut from a 200-pound wheel that was made in the Swiss Alps using raw milk from cows that were left to graze in wild fields. Betty Koster, the luminous founder of the Dutch cheese shop Fromagerie L’Amuse, known as the “Julia Child of cheese,” talked to us about some of her favorite goudas. We sampled from a board of France’s most delicious cheeses, including Reblochon, a gooey raw cow’s milk. Lunch was with the team from Italian cheesemakers Beppino Occelli: boards of reserve cheeses, wrapped in chestnut leaves or barolo grapes, followed by plates of silky, handmade pasta dressed only in that award-winning, thick-as-frosting butter, and shaved truffle.
When it came time to shop for edible souvenirs, I opted for a massive, crumbly wedge of Cravero parm, wrapped in paper and a thin sheet of plastic, which is the only reason I wasn’t worried about a little rain ruining my cheese. It’s an experience you can have too. You’ll just have to wait until the next festival in 2025. But that gives you plenty of time to get your all-weather gear ready.
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