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Blessed are the cheesemakers: Testun al barolo

Categories: Product stories

A sweet and grassy grape-must encrusted cow and goat’s milk cheese from Gastronomica

In 1998 in New York, a business self-help book entitled Who Moved My Cheese? shot to the top of bestseller lists. Using an allegorical tale of mice and humans hunting for cheese supplies, it described work strategies so successfully, it continues to be widely read by businessmen and women around the world.

Hundreds of years ago, in Piedmont, Italy, the problem of cheese-moving was more literal. Families were regularly having their cheese supplies—and other foods—snaffled away by people who were poorer or less scrupulous than they were, with the result that simply in order to survive the harsh Alpine winters, they started hiding their cheese.

They hid it in caves. They hid it in pits in the ground. They hid it in wine barrels, among the residue of grape must. One day, legend has it, they forgot a wheel of the hard testun cheese hidden in one such barrel—five months later, they discovered testun al borolo.

Traces of crimson
“They took it out, tasted it—and it was amazing,” explains Mehdi at Gastronomica, though this hardly needs explanation: the cheese is blanketed in a layer of dark nebbiolo grape must which, when you cut into it, weeps small traces of crimson into its creamy insides. “It doesn’t contain wine. It’s only the must left over after the wine-making that’s in the barrel,” he adds hastily.

It’s not the cheese for a lush. You won’t be wobbly after eating it—not in that sense, in any case—but it is a cheese with an attitude. “It’s a real cheese,” says Mehdi, “not that mild stuff you find in supermarkets. This is cheese made with passion.”

Matured for a minimum of five months in oak barrels under a layer of the nebbiolo grape husks—the same grapes used in the production of barolo wine—it’s the perfect suitor to strong reds (Mehdi suggests a cabernet, an amerone or a barolo, of course, to marry it with) and a fruit accompaniment. “This is an after-dinner cheese,” he says. Though it’s not stopped us snacking on it before and indeed during a main course.

Sharp, sturdy saltiness
It hits the spot: hits it with force, and then lingers there, with a sharp, sturdy saltiness, buttery warmth and a rich, fruity finish. There’s a nuttiness (this is, after all, a cheese made in the Alpine foothills) but it is softer, relatively speaking, than the testun from which it takes part of its name. Testun means ‘hard-headed’, in the Piedmontese dialect; testun al barolo is more laid back—a strong mind, but with the edge taken off it by the addition of one large, ripe glass of red wine.