A Barolo Rebel Taking on Cheese

Winemaker Chiara Boschis has set out to revive Piedmont's tradition of alpine dairy farming—and its renowned Castelmagno blue

A Barolo Rebel Taking on Cheese
The alpine hamlet of Valliera in Piedmont's Castelmagno is home to one of Italy's best-kept cheeses. (Robert Camuto)
Dec 18, 2019

You gotta love this about Chiara Boschis: After 30 years working in the heart of Barolo, she’s still talking revolution.

The fiery daughter of a winemaking family, she became Barolo’s first hands-on female winemaker in the 1990s at her E. Pira & Figli—and part of a generation that changed Barolo.

“We wanted to give more dignity to the work of the farmers by increasing quality and being successful,” she says. “Before then, nobody, none of the people of my generation, wanted to be a farmer—a redneck. Are you kidding? As farmers, we had to think in a different way.”

Today, at 60, Boschis is one of Barolo’s biggest success stories. Of late, she has embarked on other missions to bring change to Piedmont—like her Cannubi Bio project, convincing all but one vineyard owner on Barolo’s famed Cannubi hill to convert to organic viticulture.

And then there is the cheese.

About a decade ago, Boschis and nine friends—including family members from Barolo producers Conterno Fantino, Enzo Boglietti and Cordero di Montezemolo—banded together to restore an abandoned Piemontese alpine hamlet and bring back dairy farming for the area’s storied Castelmagno cheese.

“The idea was to make the same kind of revolution that we made in Barolo—but in the mountains,” Boschis says in her winery.

Robert Camuto Meets… is a regular column by Italy-based contributing editor Robert Camuto. Explore more of his posts!

The friends bought 10 homes in the hamlet of Valliera in the larger town of Castelmagno in Valle Grana, about 50 miles southwest of Barolo near the French border, along with more than 200 acres of pastureland for grazing. They then built cow barns and a dairy.

The friends divided the grunt work of cleaning and milking and later hired a small staff to help produce their own label, Des Martin, of the strong, naturally blue Castelmagno, a semi-hard, raw-milk cheese required to be aged for a minimum of 60 days. Des Martin produces about 900 wheels of cheese annually, the vast majority of that under the appellation’s elite Castelmagno d’Alpeggio designation, reserved for the milk of their cows that graze in high-altitude summer pastures. (The DOP requires a minimum of 1,000 meters above sea level, but theirs range from 1,600 to 1,900 meters in altitude.)

“It’s the Barolo of cheese,” Boschis says.

Des Martin Castelmagno d'Alpeggio cheese cave
Des Martin Castelmagno d'Alpeggio cheeses must age for at least 60 days. (Robert Camuto)

They’ve also restored nine apartments for rent as mountain-getaway guest houses, to help boost the community. “It’s not for money, but to give people hope,” says Boschis. “It’s a culture that is disappearing but we need the presence of humans in the mountains—it helps nature.”

On a thick wood table in her winery, Boschis sets out some samples of Des Martin’s Castelmagno d’Alpeggio and a pair of the label’s other Castelmagnos, Unico di Narbona and Unico di Valliera, from the milk of cows who eat forage from different mountain zones. She then pours glasses of her red wines.

The blue-veined cheese is crumbly and pungently earthy and herbaceous. I eat some, then drink. Her Nebbiolo Langhe 2017 cuts through the fat like a knife.

Castelmagno’s cheesemaking history dates to the early Middle Ages—before Columbus sailed the ocean blue. In Italy, where Castelmagno fetches some of the country’s highest cheese prices (about $20 per pound), it is typically melted for hearty sauces for gnocchi or rice.

“It’s not easy to sell, it’s expensive and it’s difficult to eat,” says Boschis. “Most people like cheese that has no taste.”

In my view, defending a terroir that produces unique flavors deserves applause. But I’ve never made cheese. I’m just the epicurean who likes to taste it.

“It’s completely different—another world,” Boschis says of cheesemaking. “It’s a crazy experience to produce this kind of quality and to have happy cows in the mountains.”

“But what is the same,” she says “is the passion for doing the right thing.”

Postscript: I was going to tell you where to find Des Martin Castelmagno in the United States, but its importer, New Jersey–based Pondini Cheese, has just informed me that the cheese is being dropped on account of U.S. tariffs on select European products, including Italian cheese. “Castelmagno d’Alpeggio is already a very expensive and very particular cheese, but when one adds another 25 percent due to the tariff, it renders the cost astronomical,” writes company president Seymour Pond.

All the more reason to put Italy in your travel plans in the new year.

People Cheese Italy Piedmont

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