It’s all in the blend
You’re never far from something delicious in Piedmont. Bordered by France and the Maritime Alps in the far north-west of Italy, the region’s hills are lined with vineyards and hazelnut groves, while white truffles grow deep beneath the ground in its woodlands.
There’s plenty to interest cheese lovers too, with Slow Food’s iconic cheese festival held in the town of Bra every two years and numerous protected varieties, from Robiola de Rocaverrano goats’ cheese to the crumbly blue Castelmagno.
One Piedmont’s best-known dairies is Caseificio dell’Alta Langa, which sits in the hills of Cuneo, close to the famous wine region Barolo and the truffle trading town of Alba. Set up in 1991 by the Merlo family, the business specialises in small, soft cheeses, such as the wrinkly rinded La Tur and ash-coated Carboncino, many of which are made from a mix of cows’, goats’ and sheep’s milk.
“Mixed milk cheeses are a tradition of Piedmont,” says director Diego Merlo, who runs the business with his brother Nicola. “There used to be many small farms with just one goat, a couple of sheep and a cow. They would mix their milks so they had enough to make cheese.”
Continuing the tradition is not without its headaches, however, as seasonal changes in the milk must be carefully managed. “We have three times the problems than if we just used one milk,” he says. “In the summer, the goats’ milk might be low in fat, but the sheep’s milk will be really creamy. In January it could be the other way round. We add cream to balance the differences.”
We have three times the problems than if we just used one milkDiego Merlo
While tradition is important at Caseificio dell’Alta Langa, in other respects it’s a thoroughly modern food business. Around 25 tonnes of cheese are produced each week – a huge amount compared to most artisan cheesemakers – but production has grown by employing more cheesemakers (the company employs 75 people in total) rather than through automation. A tour of the dairy proves as much, with dozens of cheesemakers hard at work at an even greater number of small vats, while others hand-ladle curd into moulds. “We’re not big and we are not small – somewhere in the middle,” says Merlo.
Many cheesemakers in Piedmont make PDO-protected cheeses but Alta Langa is focused instead on brands with half of sales coming from exports to destinations including the US, Germany and Japan, as well as the UK, where Vallebona, The Fine Cheese Co. and Waitrose are customers.
Alta Langa makes more than 25 cheeses, including blues, washed rinds and camembert styles, but is probably best known in the UK for La Tur – a dainty 200g cheese made with a blend of pasteurised cows’, sheep’s and goats’ milk, plus double cream.
Around 1.5 tonnes of the cheese are made weekly, with the three milks slowly acidified in tubs using starter cultures that are cultivated in house. Traditional rennet is also used to set the curd, which is then ladled into moulds, drained and brined. The cheeses are matured for at least eight days, during which time the wrinkly Geotrichum rind develops.
Beneath the paper-thin rind, the cheese has a glossy, melted ice cream texture, while the flavour is full of double cream notes and a slight piquancy from the goat’s milk.
The company also bought London-based Italian food importer Gastronomica in 2019. “We wanted control of where and how our cheeses were distributed, which is very important for delicate, soft cheeses like ours,” says Merl
The move has made post-Brexit paperwork easier and also provided continuity during the Covid pandemic, but rising costs are the pressing issue now.
“We’ve seen huge increases in milk prices because of the war in Ukraine,” says CEO Nicola Merlo. “Gas, electricity, packaging and transport have all gone up too.”
Prices have had to rise accordingly, but they are still competitive compared to similar British cheeses. La Tur retails at The Fine Cheese Co for £7.50, while Robiola Bosina is on sale in Waitrose at £6.70.
“We’ve seen more cheesemakers setting up in the US and Britain, but we see it as a good thing,” says Nicola. “It shows people are interested in cheese in those countries and we all benefit. It’s amazing how good the cheese is in the UK now, but we offer something different.”