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By Stephanie Georgieff, Slow Food member and host/producer of Real Food Empire

The ninth edition of Slow Food Cheese Festival in Bra was a gastronomic lacto paradise. There were several hundred different varieties of cheeses from all over Europe, the Balkans, Africa, the Americas and some parts of Asia. I never knew there were so many different, distinct ways to make my personal favorite food group.

Among the other 250,000 attendees from all over the globe, I experienced the world’s finest artisan and heirloom cheeses for a glorious long warm weekend in September: tasting, smelling, seeing and pairing them with wines, beers and ciders.

{{ image(2544, {“class”: “flor round”, “width”:300, “height”:175,”method”: “img”}) }}After attending workshops and networking with Presidia and American artisan producers, my appreciation for the global importance of Cheese has, well, transformed.

The featured initiative for Cheese 2013 was a project called ESSEDRA. The name is short for Environmentally Sustainable Socio Economic Development of Rural Areas, and is a joint project between Slow Food International, the European Union, and the UN Farm and Agriculture Organization among others.

ESSEDRA works with local Slow Food chapters in the Balkans and Turkey to help map culinary and agricultural products, insuring their protection as these nations strive to meet and compete with modern food production standards.

Slow Food ESSEDRA Financial Management Officer Matteo Pizzi explains that the Balkans were selected as the first ever project of ESSEDRA because Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Republic of Macedonia, Romania, Serbia and Turkey are most at risk of losing their agricultural and culinary treasures through globalization. In these regions, for various historical and political reasons, many food traditions date back to Roman times and it would be a catastrophe for biodiversity – as well as for local economies – if they were lost due to the drive for standardization.

As I accompanied the Macedonian delegation, Professor Sonja Srbinovska of the Agricultural Faculty at the University of Skopje shared with me the difficulties for her nation of mostly independent rural dairy farmers. Nearly 72% of all dairy farms in Macedonia have five or less cows, and if forced to compete with large EU nations, their subsidized big dairies could spell the end of the traditional way of life (a delicious one I might add) in her nation. Dr. Srbinovska said her tiny Republic of two million people did not have the money to lobby for allowances for the traditional cheese-making traditions.

ESSEDRA provided for the joining of forces of many nations – formerly bitter enemies – to share strategies for meeting production standards, while maintaining traditional cheese making and local economic opportunities.

Through numerous Biodiversity of Milk workshops, Slow Food USA members and supporters have much to learn from the ESSEDRA project. While not the first, it is the most ambitious cooperation Slow Food International has had with a government body to promote and protect culinary biodiversity via the Ark of Taste.

While we U.S. Slow Foodies love our cheese, wine, heirloom vegetables and fruits, what truly inspires us is the desire to change our industrial food system. We want current and future generations to have access to the foods we treasure, and we want those who produce these gems to be compensated fairly for their labor. ESSEDRA is a practical model for how this can be done, and we need to pay attention to how it is progressing in the Balkans and adapt these efforts for our own food system.

I came away from Cheese 2013 with a new appreciation for the “Terroir of Milk.” I now understand the natural microbes of a geographic area are what gives the unique taste to their fermented products. The biologically active agents that create the incredible diversity of cheese are filled with what fermentation experts call the “symphony of milk background qualities.” Allowing animals to eat local grasses, herbs and hay enhances this “symphony.” Such bioactive compounds also allow for the successful interaction of human physiology with the external environment, protecting from allergies and asthma, and boosting immunity.

I learned that regional taste means more than excellent qualifiers; it signifies a true relationship between humans and the earth. Preserving the world’s best and most endangered cheeses seems to be the doorway to global peace, economic prosperity, environmental integrity… and a whole lot of fantastically good eating.