Friday, September 27, 2013

On Location: Beppino Occelli in Valcasotto, Italy

Before traveling this week to northern Italy, I was already a big fan of Beppino Occelli butter, made in Italy and available in American in select specialty stores. But I never realized the extent to which the company has transformed an alpine community once in decline into a real "cheese village," aging rare Langa and Cuneo mountain cheeses using traditional Old World methods I assumed were long lost.

After driving two hours from the Village of Bra up a series of mountains through tinier villages full of people who looked at our bus like we were from outer space, our group arrived at Beppino Occelli in the hamlet of Valcasotto. In 1976, Mr. Occelli began restoring the community's buildings into cheese aging facilities, and today, the community is home to a world-class underground affinage facility, restored flour mill, retail shop and restaurant.

Felice Costardt, a young affineur, was generous enough to give us an hour-long tour of the extensive aging cellars, which are truly underground rock cellars that look exactly like the cobwebbed hand-hewn rock rooms below the farm house in which I grew up. Humidity in the cellars is controlled by gravity-fed, pure spring water transported through a series of wooden troughs (pictured below), while each room is temperature controlled via more modern air in-and out-take methods.

Felice is in his 20s and is one of five full-time affineurs at Beppino Occelli. He came to the trade of aging cheeses by accident, after being hired as a chef by Mr. Occelli. After gaining more than 100 pounds while working in the kitchen, he begged for a different job, and began to work in the aging cellars, caring for the cheeses and learning from the previous "cheese master." Today, it is nearly impossible to believe the young man once weighed 300 pounds. "This job suits me much better," he said.

The first cheese we learned about was Cusie, a Beppino Occelli original, which takes its name from the local dialect and means “that which there is” or as Felice put it: "What's in the cheese?" It  refers to the fact that Cusie is made with whatever milk is available, and can be a blend of cow and sheep’s milk or cow and goat's milk. After production, it is aged 45 days in barrels filled with grape skins and then placed on wooden shelving for 2 months to age.

When young, it is turned two to three times per week and is then moved to a second cellar with a different humidity level, where it is aged another two to four months. Here, it forms unique molds on the rind, ranging from brown to white to orange. It is flipped once per week. It is then transferred to a third cellar for six months or more, with a lower humidity level. At each stage of the aging, different types of wooden shelves are used, ranging from apple to pear to cherry wood. Felice mentioned he never uses chestnut wood, because the wood is rich in tannins and would stain the cheese with dark spots. At a final age of 18 to 24 months, before being sent to market, Cusie is vacuum cleaned and stamped.

Several more cheeses are aged in the maze of underground aging rooms, but my favorite was entering the Castelmagno di Alpeggio DOP cheese aging room, which contained a large manger of dried hay - yes, dried hay in a cheese aging room. The cheese is unique in both its production method - the curds are crushed, broken twice, and then pressed into molds - and also in its aging practice, in which it attains its characteristic flavor of aromatic mountain herbs from absorbing the aroma of actual dried mountain herbs in the aging cellar.

As if this weren't impressive enough, Felice explained that in ancient times, the rock-walled room in which we were standing was the basement of an inn, and housed the animals of its guests. So the manger does not seem out of place to the folks aging cheese there, but it certainly seemed out of place to Americans used to sanitary rooms with stainless steel floor drains.

Following the cellar tour, we were treated to an amazing lunch and cheese tasting at Beppino Occelli of the following cheeses:
  • Tuma dla Paja: this soft and creamy mixed milk cheese sports a white, wrinkled crust with an aroma of hazelnuts. In Italian legend, at the end of the harvest in the farmhouses of the Langa, it was customary to place a fresh 'tuma' to mature under straw, or "paja" in the Piedmontese dialect. You can occasionally find this cheese in the United States, as it was named the best cheese at the 1997 Fancy Food Show in New York.
  • Toma del Monte Regale: made from raw cow's milk, this soft cheese has tiny holes in the paste and is milky and buttery. Think Taleggio without the stink. Yum.
  • Valcasotto Il Formaggio Del Re: in the past, Valcasotto farmers would offer their cheeses to the royal castle in exchange for the use of the meadows. Tradition says the square-shape of this cheese came about because it perfectly fit into the saddle of mules for transport to the king's palace, and its intense (read: stinky) scent reminded the king of the sun and the fragrant grass of the pastures.
  • Ocelli in foglie di Castagna: produced from goat or sheep and cow's milk in quantities that vary according to the availability of the season, this cheese is left to age for about a year and a half. The wheels are then wrapped in chestnut leaves which imbue them with a strong flavor. Interestingly enough, some wheels used to be wrapped in tobacco leaves, until the company was forced to put health warnings on the cheese label about the risk of using tobacco. Thanks for nothing, label nazis.
  • Escarun: the rarest of all cheeses invented by Beppino Ocelli, its name means "little herd." Made from the milk of sheep and cows grazing the highest pasutres of the Alps of Cuneo, the cheese sports a thin, dimpled rind and finely grained, crumbly texture. Each Escarun wheel is branded and numbered, almost as a unique piece of art. This is the largest piece of cheese pictured in the foreground, next to the spinach, below.

Of course, no tasting at Beppino Occelli would be complete without butter! And I'm pretty sure we ate our weight in the gold stuff.

Thank you to all the wonderful folks at Beppino Occelli for a truly remarkable experience. I will be searching out your cheeses from now on in the United States!

Next up: Making & Tasting Tallegio on the mountain top of Vedeseto, Italy

All photos by Uriah Carpenter.

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