BRA, Italy (Reuters) - Taking cows to pastures high in the Italian Alps and then making cheese by hand in a nearby tent while the milk is still warm may all seem a bit too much like unnecessary drudgery in an age of high-tech agriculture.
But for a group of 14 makers of the rich Italian cheese Bitto Storico it is worth all the effort to preserve a dairy tradition which goes back to the 15th century.
Tribal herdsmen in a remote corner of western Kenya are a world apart from cheesemakers in wealthy northern Italy, but they also cling to a centuries-old dairy process for making ash yoghurt to protect local traditions and the environment.
What the two groups and other farmers and supporters in 150 countries around the world have in common is that their efforts to preserve traditional food, support sustainable farming and promote a measured pace of life are part of the growing Slow Food movement.
Born in the small, northern Italian town of Bra in 1986 as a reaction to the global influence of fast food and the ever-frenetic pace of modern life, the Slow Food movement organizes fairs and runs projects from the Alps to east Africa promoting local food traditions, defending biodiversity and connecting producers with consumers.
Consortium for the Protection of Bitto Storico Chairman Paolo Ciapparelli said at a cheese fair in Bra organized by Slow Food that the methods and traditions of making the cheese had to be saved from dying out.
“It is very hard work ... But when you taste Bitto you taste history,” said the 60-year-old Ciapparelli, whose face lights up when he talks about his passion for the cheese. “We wanted to defend the production which was on the edge of disappearing.”
The tradition of Bitto cheeses is firmly rooted in the life of small mountain communities in the northern Italian region of Lombardy close to the border with Switzerland.
The cheese is still made according to a centuries-old process, without any artificial fermentation agents or preservatives. Cows are not given any industrial feed but are taken to graze on the Alpine pastures some 2,000 meters (yards) up in the mountains.
More than just a gourmet treat, the cheese plays a vital part in preserving the delicate environment of the remote mountain valleys where it is made.
When farmers stop making their traditional dairy products, a domino effect follows. Local animal breeds whose milk is used to make cheese risk dying out and small villages are deserted as people move out to seek other jobs, the fair organizers said.
“Cheese is the last link in the long chain which includes various elements — microeconomy, biodiversity and also cultural heritage,” said Serena Milano, secretary of the Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity which helps small-scale farmers around the world to protect and improve their products.
“To save a cheese for us is like saving a fresco,” Milano said.
For farmers in four small villages in the West Pokot district of western Kenya, making the so-called ash yoghurt is also a means of survival on the dry land where they herd cows, goats and sheep.
Nomads in the area have been making ash yoghurt for at least a couple of centuries, adding ash to the dairy product to keep it fresh in the heat, Peter Namianya, coordinator of a Slow Food project aimed at protecting the product, told Reuters.
Yoghurt is still a basic food for local people but as nomads have settled down and pasture land has gradually been given over to tea and coffee plantations, the ash yoghurt tradition has come close to death, threatening the livelihoods of local farmers, he said.
Competition from cheap supermarket dairy products has also dealt local farmers a heavy blow making them cut prices to win over consumers. Only a few families still make ash yoghurt for their own use and for sale to neighbors or occasionally on local markets, he said.
The Slow Food project aims to help the farmers improve the quality of yoghurt, draw production rules and spread a word about this unique product around Kenya and across the borders.
With their small and elaborate manual production, both Kenyan herdsmen and Italian farmers are bucking the global trend for the kind of intensive agricultural production considered necessary to feed the world’s growing population.
Global food output must double from 2005-2007 levels in developing countries and rise 70 percent in developed nations to feed a world population expected to reach 9 billion in 2050, up from 6.7 billion now, according to United Nations’ estimates.
Neither Italian Bitto makers nor Kenyan ash yoghurt producers imagine their products will feed the world’s hungry. But they are betting on winning consumers with their unique, 100-percent natural products.
The livelihood of about 30 Kenyan farmers united by the Slow Food’s project would get a boost if sales of the creamy, sweet and sour ash yoghurt with its characteristic greyish color expands into local restaurants as planned, Namianya said.
Makers of Bitto Storico deliberately limit the output of their 12-13 kg rounds of cheese to about 3,000 a year to ensure top quality and high prices.
“Our strength is purity of the product ... It’s a cheese to give as a gift, like a fine wine,” Ciapparelli said.
($1 = 0.730 Euros)
Reporting by Svetlana Kovalyova, editing by Paul Casciato