Cheese: a form of freedom

02 September 2021

Eros Buratti is a cheese affineur by trade. Not a herder who raises animals, nor a cheesemaker, i.e. the person who turns the animals’ milk into cheese.

He doesn’t work with milk, rennet or curd, but he ages cheese, preparing each form to the right level of maturation.

There are mostly toma cheeses that Eros Buratti ages: they mostly come from producers in Piedmont, and in particular the valleys near Ossola in the extreme north of the region. The hub of his activity is in Verbania, on Lake Maggiore. Here, in Piazza Ranzoni, he’s been managing his shop,  La Casera, for over 30 years, selling the cheeses he ages in caves around the city.

An uphill journey

Eros Buratti
Eros Buratti in his aging cave

“When I opened La Casera, in 1991, Italy wasn’t yet ready to tackle the theme of cheese seriously,” he tells us. “The dairy industry dominated, and wholesalers bought cheeses in one area of Italy and took them elsewhere, selling them as if they were something else, and the largest companies imported products from abroad, aged them and sold them off as ‘local’. Those first years were a battle, but I’ve always been convinced that it was the time to present a new vision.” There was a lack of traceability, but perhaps there was also a lack of culture. As Eros says: “People came and ordered a kilo of toma without asking about its aging, where it came from, whether it was made with raw milk or not.”

But over time, and thanks to the awareness-raising work of Slow Food and the impact of Cheese (an event where Eros Buratti has participated since its second edition in 1999) the public has developed a greater sensibility, no longer contenting itself with generic cheese. Eros continues: “Even the large distributors have taken on this challenge, contributing to the development of a system of traceability, but what differentiates us from the large distributors is that, for us, the search for cheesemaking traditions is inseparable from small-scale cheesemakers, with their pasture-raised animals.” In other words, “those who produce in smaller numbers and cannot guarantee a constant supply.” A philosophy that has practical implications: working in this way means traveling “along a road that’s constantly uphill, because with reduced quantities we can’t satisfy a great mass of customers.”

Cheese at rest

Eros Buratti
Aging

It’s a difficult equilibrium to manage, remaining afloat financially while keeping the traditions of these northern valleys alive. As Eros explains: “The sensation I feel when I go up into the mountain pastures to see the producers, when I cut a cheese wheel and smell it; for me its a form of freedom. My mind wanders, fantasizes, and I think what could become of that toma in a year or two. Faced with that sensation, business matters little.” And so he returns to Lake Maggiore and brings the cheeses to his aging caves. “Selling a pasture-raised cheese immediately, as it is, seems like such a waste to me. The cheese needs time to rest, to age, to develop its aroma in contact with the wood.”

But what does an affineur do in practical terms? We hear from Giuseppe Paltani, food technologist of the Piedmont region who, together with Eros Buratti and others, worked for the recognition of Ossolano cheese as a PDO in 2017: “The affineur manages the aging process, a critical phase in the production process because it’s when the definitive personality of the product comes to the surface.” The main aspect is microbiological: yeasts and bacteria act within the cheese, microorganisms that live in the aging environment contribute to the cheese’s evolution. There are temperatures and humidity levels to be monitored, the wheels must be washed and turned, making sure not to miss the right moment to stop the process and put the product on sale.

Aging caves and refrigeration

Eros Buratti
The pastures of Ossola

Aging requires time and effort: every wheel weighs around ten kilos, and must turned continuously. For this reason, today many people prefer to age in refrigerated cells. Eros is dubious. “You can do it, sure, but you lose the microclimate, which is the most important thing for a cheese. In the cave I can give each cheese my imprint. I’m open-minded, but I can be hard and unfriendly at times. That’s because I don’t always give people what they’d like from me. It’s the same thing with my cheese: in one corner of the cave I have 100 wheels aging, and they’ll be released for sale when I decide, not when the market tells me. It may be archaic, but that’s how I want to work.”

Eros Buratti and many other affineurs from Italy and beyond will be present in Bra at Cheese from September 17 to 20, a unique opportunity to taste the numerous forms of cheese and the learn about the fascinating world of work behind every form.

by Carlo Petrini, published in Repubblica Torino on 27/08/21

Where to eat and sleep

La Casera (Verbania) La Latteria (Verbania) Gattabuia Ristorante Sociale (Verbania) Fiore di latte (Baveno) La Rampolina (Stresa) → also a place to slep Rifugio Pian Cavallone → from May to October Hotel Ghiffa (Ghiffa)

La Latteria (Verbania)

Fiore di latte (Baveno)

Rifugio Pian Cavallone → from May to October

Hotel Milano (Miazzina)