A Cheese Orgy Worth the Trek North

As far as cheese orgies go, there are bigger. There are also sexier, and to be perfectly honest better. But for intimateness and setting it would be hard to beat the Festival del Formaggio in Campo Tures in the most northern point of Italy’s most northern region, Trentino-Alto Adige.

The 10th edition of the cheese festival, or Käse Festival in German, the tongue spoken by people up here in what was Austria until 1918, took place this past weekend with more than 10,000 visitors stopping in at the stands of 100 producers presenting almost 1,000 cheeses. Not bad for an event that started a decade ago with three producers and ten visitors. In addition to cheese from Alto Adige, the top half of the Trentino-Alto Adige region, many other regions were represented as were several foreign countries including the Netherlands with Gouda, obviously.

It all started a bit more than a decade ago with a local from the Valle Aurina, the valley where Campo Tures is located, deciding he wanted to find a way to keep formaggio grigio, a native cheese, from being lost to the onslaught of culinary standardization. Formaggio grigio, literally “gray cheese,” can be aged, semi-hard and crumbly (as it is in Valle Aurina) or soft with the consistency of ricotta. My cheese tastes revolve around mozzarella, ricotta, scamorza and other “fresh” cheeses so formaggio grigio is not my thing, but under the tent in Campo Tures (Sand in Taufers in German) I was decidedly in the minority.

At the festival you’ll also find lots of breads, Alto Adige might have the best bread in Italy, as well as sweets and speck (smoked ham). An event in Alto Adige without speck is like summer in San Francisco without fog, an intriguing idea that will never come to pass. There has most probably never been an event of any importance in Alto Adige where speck did not feature prominently. While I haven’t yet warmed up to formaggio grigio, I’m a fan of speck (as well as Frisco in the summer) and have the distinction of having taken third place at a sandwich making competition with a speck and California date panino.

And the end of the day the festival is about trying to get you to pony up for some cheese, and the aforementioned speck, but the event is also about saving local customs. As such there were people walking around in mountain attire stopping to occasionally partake in what could only be called the local version of square dancing. There is nothing like some folk dancing to fire up the crowd and get them in a cheese-buying mood.

For the first eight editions the festival was yearly, now it’s every two years (on the second weekend of March), so you have to wait until 2014 for your next shot at this intimate cheese orgy. In addition to pretty decent skiing, up here you can also burrow more than a kilometer into an old mine to breathe what is claimed to be the best air in Italy…been there, done that, more later.

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