One of the most memorable trips my wife, Valerie, and I have taken in pursuit of new cheeses was in 1993. We traveled to Castelmagno, home to the famous Italian cheese of the same name. Located on the very northwest fringes of Italy, Castelmagno is a small commune or municipality, consisting of several hamlets. We were invited to visit the region by our friend and mentor, Matteo Ascheri. The hamlet we visited had only one albergo (inn) and a total population of 56. Eleven of those inhabitants made Castelmagno.
Matteo, a Piedmontese food and wine authority, is a winemaker and knew everyone in town. On our first day, he organized a lunch for us with several local food producers, including a fellow who crafted hard candies and exotic elixirs. We all ended up having the most amazing lunch in the local albergo’s lunch room. For our first course, we were served lake trout cured in vinegar with mountain bread. The bread was made with flour from our friends at Mulino Marino and ice cold water from a nearby brook. In that one course, we enjoyed flavors and textures we had never experienced before – and it wasn’t even the highlight of the meal.
The trout and bread was followed by the dish of my dreams: Gnocchi al Castelmagno. The air light gnocchi was served with shavings of Castelmagno on top that melted as the dish was brought to the table. This was paired with Matteo’s Pelaverga wine and was truly a one-of-a-kind introduction to Piedmont cuisine. I have since tried to recreate the dish at home with acceptable success – unfortunately, it’s a little more challenging to simulate the stunning mountain top setting and the table surrounded by our Italian friends.
After this most memorable lunch, we visited the cheese cellar (or cave) of the albergo. Five of the town’s Castelmagno-makers use the inn’s cave, aging their cheeses on shelves made of fir or spruce. The owner of the albergo, also a friend of Matteo’s, plugged several wheels of Castelmagno for us to taste – wheels of varying ages made by different cheesemakers. We were surprised to find such nuances of flavor, starting with very delicate notes in the younger cheeses and ranging to sharper and slightly blue-like notes in the more aged wheels. On top of this, Castelmagno has the most unusual texture that I have ever encountered in a cheese – slightly granular and almost sandy.
In this rustic setting, Matteo shared several colorful stories about the townspeople. One story dealt with the extreme competitiveness that surrounds their cheesemaking, something that is further aggravated by a shortage of stagionaturas (cheese agers) in town. Another story was told of a priest who had been run out of town – images of him with devil’s horns were graffitied on the church walls. The only churchman for miles, he left behind an empty but picturesque church – Santuario di San Magno – that is still perched high in the mountains, overlooking stunning valleys that lead into France. It has since been scrubbed clean of the graffiti.
Needless to say, after all we had tasted and heard, we began importing limited quantities of Castelmagno immediately upon our return to the States. We have been buying it ever since.
Ihsan Gurdal is the owner of Formaggio Kitchen Cambridge.