We love a good weird cheese, a cheese that has an unexpected flavor arch or just unexpected flavor. Castelmagno is such a cheese. It is a hard cow’s milk cheese from the Piedmont, the northwest region of Italy, where Brie and I vistied around this time last year for the Slow Food Festival, a.k.a. World Festival Cheese Extravaganza. We were also lucky enough to visit a Castelmagno cheesemaker in the Italian Alps. Other than a fairytale couple of days on Lago Maggiore, this was my favorite part of the trip because it became quite an adventure.
Seeing cheesemaking and aging in action is always interesting, so Brie and I were looking forward to the visit already. The day started with a long winding bus ride up a hill, and then a small mountain, and then our group left the bus because it couldn’t handle the next section of the very, very steep mountain. We got into a white van that gamely trundled up the first few hairpin turns. However, by the seventh turn, the van decided it was time to quit, and instead of going forward when Anna, our trip leader and driver, pressed on the acceleration, we started rolling back towards the edge of the road, which was a cliff. Anna yanked on the emergency break and we stopped and sat in slightly panicked silence. It smelled like burning breaks and Brie turned to me with owl eyes that plainly said “let’s get out of here NOW.” We scooted out of the van with the rest of the group following into the fresh alpine air, which was not so fresh and instead had the distinctive tires on fire scent.
We were not so far from the top now and feeling jittery, so we decided to walk the rest of the way up the road. It was actually a good day for a hike, with a little high cloud cover and a slight breeze. The scenery was beautiful and dramatic, with valleys far below, covered with dark green vineyards, and jagged mountains on the horizon. Although it was scary for a moment, thinking we were about to plunge to our deaths, I’m glad the van gave out because this hike was a highlight of the trip.
When we reached the top, the cheesemakers had hot tea ready for us because it was brrrisk up there. Then, we started to explore the cheesemaking facility. Well, really it was a small village where the buildings were built into the steep slope of the mountain! INTO the slope! It was crazy! In 2007, a group of friends found this abandoned village with everything still in tact in the houses. There were clothes and shoes in the bedrooms, newspapers on the table in the kitchen, plates and cups on shelves, like everyone had just left a second ago and were coming right back. They decided they wanted to bring some life back to the town, so they built a place to make cheese from the milk from the cows grazing in the area during the summer, and they had refurbishing nine small stone and wood houses for agritourism. This group has such an impressive vision and drive!
Where they actually make Castelmagno looks pretty much like any other cheesemaking operation, except the floor was made of beautiful slabs of stone. Next, we headed to the low-ceilinged cellar, also made completely of stone besides the wooden shelves holding Castelmagno wheels of many ages. It smelled like wet stone, butter, and must, all the usual cheese seller smells, except this felt more historic for some reason, like we had stepped back in time when cheese was aged in actual caves or when each family had their own wheels in their root cellar. But I was probably just feeling nostalgic and precious about the cheese by that point. And I was getting hungry.
Luckily, it was lunchtime! After seeing all this Castelmagno, I reeeeeallly wanted to eat it. We tried cheese of various ages, cured meats, soup, sandwiches, quiche, and dessert because Italian lunches cannot simply be one course! I still miss those lunches very much, especially as I shovel down cold leftovers at the shop during my break… Ahhh, daydreams…Anyway, trying the different ages next to each other was fun because they each got progressively fruitier, sharper, meatier, and funkier, with veins of blue mold throughout. The one we have at the shop is definitely on the older, stronger, weirder side, like I said at the beginning. It begs for a glass of a rich red wine, like the Italian Aglianico – plum, cherry, smoke – and some crusty bread to balance it out. Even though such a strong cheese is not usually a go-to for me, I love this one because it brings back happy memories of a beautiful day spent on a mountain with a good friend surrounded by cheese. Oh, how I yearn for you, Italy.
For the love of cheese and unexpected adventures,