One of the things I was looking forward to the most on my recent trip to Barolo had nothing to do with wine. It was visiting the mountains on the Piedmont border with France, home to the production of one of Italy’s great cheeses, Castelmagno.
In 2007 a group of friends, known as ‘Des Martin’ and including two of our Barolo wineries; Chiara Boschis (Chiara together with brother Cesare) and the Conterno and Fantino families from Conterno Fantino, purchased the run down mountain borgata (hamlet) of Valliera and set about restoring the village and reviving the famous mountain cheese.
Castelmagno was first recorded in 1277 and in the early 19th century it rivalled Parmigiano Reggiano as the king of cheeses. But the war years were brutal on a life in the mountains and there was a mass exodus to the cities in search of work. As a result of this, production declined and almost disappeared entirely until it was revived in the 1980’s.
This was the state of buildings when Des Martin purchased the village in 2007. Beds, clothing and other personal belongings that couldn’t be carried were simply left behind, a reminder of a life that perhaps no one wanted to take with them.
Most of the village is now completely restored and the agriturismo is scheduled to open for the 2015 Summer.
There are two types of Castelmagno. Both must be made in and around the village of the same name but the most prized is ‘d’Alpeggio’, where the cows graze on the wild grass and flowers over 1000 metres. Thus the growing season is confined to the months of June to October when feed is both plentiful and accessible. The difference between the two could be described as being somewhat like that of between Nebbiolo Langhe and Barolo.
Cheesemaker Ilaria takes the morning and evening raw milk, adding a rennet and going through a process of removing the whey, chopping and salting before forming the cheese into cylindrical shapes of around 5kg. The cheese is then matured in caves for betwen 6 and 12 months. The young cheese, aged 4-6 months, is chalky white with a crumbly texture and slightly tangy and salty. The mature cheese develops a mould not unlike gorgonzola and is more full-bodied in flavour.
I’m hoping that we can find a way to ship some Des Martin Castelmagno d’Alpeggio next year, especially to accompany the wines of Chiara Boschis and Conterno Fantino.