Taste of Life in Castelmagno
We are out on a Sunday family drive and we leave the bitumen road on the tight switchbacks as Rob carefully navigates up through the dense forest up the valley of Grana. The car tyres start slipping and I see the rubble of the rocky road spill over the edge and drop just a mere 100 meters below you and I’m thinking that it’s not normal for your heart rate to excelerate to 200 beats per minute whilst on a casual Sunday drive. But I look up and have faith that if this road was used by cars 80 years ago its bloody well going to be safe today!
It is within 20 minutes of sheer nail biting terror that we arrive at our destination, Valliera, a tiny village in the province of Piedmont in a little know commune called Castelmagno, located deep in the forest and perched on a precipitous mountainside (around 1500m ASL) of the Italian/French Alps. It is here that a group of history enthusiasts have, over the past 5 years, started to long process of restoring the original 21 village houses with a view to reclaim the culture of the mountainous farmers.
It is quite a surreal experience to wander about the village and see the transformation from the original buildings that still stand into modernistic yet tasteful reincarnations of the building’s original form. When taking a wander about the village I cannot help but feel moments of nostalgia when I can step inside a house and feel as though the occupants quite simply ‘up and left’ in a day. The evidnce is before us, bedding still remains on the iron cast double bed, and with old medicine bottles left on wooden shelves built into the hand crafted stonewalls. Our local guide tells us that quite literally one day, this community just picked up, walked out, headed back down the valley and never came back. Such was the times of the 1930’s when the families here were no longer able to survive economically and went in search of work in the towns and cities in the valley floor.
We are fortunate to know a few of the people involved here in the group which has helped fund and organise the reconstruction. As well as saving a small piece of history in the buildings, they are also helping to save one of the most unique cheeses in Italy, Castelmagno d’Alpeggio. We are taken on a tour of the where the cheese is made and the aging cellars.
Castelmagno is a PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) awarded Italian semi-hard cheese prepared within the administrative region of the communes of Castelmagno, Pradleves and Monterosso Grana in the province of Cuneo, Piedmont. The cheese is made from cow’s milk, often with a small addition of a mixture of sheep and/or goat’s milk. To guarantee the authenticity of the product, it is essential that the milk utilised comes from communes protected by PDO designation. The ageing of regular Castelmagno takes two to five months to get the characteristic traditional flavor, however producers who make the higher quality and rarer Castelmagno d’Alpeggio typically age it for around 1 year before sale. It is a dense cheese with no open holes, and often has a ‘parmigiano reggiano-like’ slightly crystalline/grainy, crumbly texture. The color leans from ivory white towards ochre-yellow depending on the month of milking and production techniques used, often with presence of bluish-green veins of penicillium moulds. The rind is thin and reddish-yellow, which turns wrinkly and brownish-ochre as the cheese matures. The subtle taste of Castelmagno gets stronger, spicier and sharper as it ages, although it can often be much sweeter and less sharp than it’s aged appearance belies.
Castelmagno is a very ancient cheese with origins dating back to 1277. When you hear about how well the wines of Barolo match with the cheese, it is not a surprise to find that the core of the group of friends who got together to get this reconstruction happening are some of the top Barolo producers in the region. With the likes of Claudio Conterno from Conterno Fantino, Chiara Boschis (A.A. E. Pira & Figli) and Elio Altare, all getting behind the project. It is appreciated as a table cheese and used in the preparation of typical Italian.
Descending deeper in the village I can hear music coming from the newly opened refuge where today we are celebrating their official opening with long lunch tables filled with families, young and old. With the token kids and dogs running free we sit down to enjoy a typical mountain dish of creamy polenta made with a very course form of polenta flour, served with a rich, lightly spiced, tomatoe based sausage and meat stew and of course a seemingly endless supply of red wine siphoned directly from a 50L demijohn (the hipsters and last season’s raw/natural wine devotees would be having conniptions over it). Finishing with the dolce of crosstata, which is a light and crumbly apricot tart, and chocolate.
The wines are refilled and we sit back and enjoy as the locals start singing in stunning a capella harmony, accompanied by nothing more than the fresh mountain air. They sang several songs of the local area, in both Italian and local dialect, from lilting bedtime songs to the areas municipal anthem.
It is not until three young teenage boys, i rigazzi, break out their piano accordions that you see at least half of the audience get up and start folk dancing. It is an absolute pleasure to watch and I cannot but help think sitting back from the music with the view of the mountains and village in front of me that if there was ever such a thing as spirits, then right now the ancestors of this tiny stone village in the middle of the alps would be looking down and smiling right now as the future generations enjoy their songs, their food and their homeland.
A visit to this unique mountain region to visit the Refuge and tastings of Castelmagno d’alpeggio can be arranged through Taste of Life Custom Tours.