Blessed are the cheesemakers: Occelli con frutta e grappa di moscato

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A fusion of dairy, dried fruit and local sweet grappa from Piedmont

“It is a king among cheeses,” enthuses Germana of Gastronomica, as she slices carefully into the mountainous wheel of Occelli con frutta e grappa di moscato. It’s just one of several superlatives associated with this extraordinary fusion of dairy, dried fruit and local sweet grappa from cheesemaker Beppino Occelli.

‘Ancient’ is not one of them. Though the ageing cellars of Valcasotto are centuries old, Beppino Occeli is a modernist. “He cannot just do something simple with cheese,” says Germana admiringly. “He is known as an experimenter.” Together, his “world-famous” butter and eponymous range of “grand” cheeses (la gran riserva speciali di Beppino Occelli) have earned him a national reputation more akin to a conceptual artist than that of a cheesemaker from Piedmont.

Made from sheep and cow’s milk, these cheeses deal in bold and surprising combinations—hay, for example, or barley malt and whiskey. But when Germana describes the Occelli con frutta e grappa di moscato as “uniquely amazing”, you can see what she means. Of course, fruit with cheese is nothing new: ricotta and figs, brie and cranberry, apple with cheddar. But this particular cheese—with its crown jewels of plump figs, bright, blazing apricots and golden sultanas—is really in a league of its own.

Hamlet of cheese
The cheese is aged for 12 months under the watchful eyes of affineurs whose families have done this for generations. Indeed, so ensconced has the village of Valcasotto been in cheesemaking, it is known as the ‘hamlet of cheese’. This has not always been the case: though the cheesemaking tradition is strong here, it was an alpine village in decline up until relatively recently. Occelli con frutta e grappa di moscato and other such innovations aren’t just forging new paths in terms of cheesemaking; they’re reviving a whole industry.

Once matured, the cheese is refined with grappa di moscato. “The grapes which make the grappa are small and full of sugar, and come from the local area,” says Germana. “It’s used like a marinade.” The fruit is likewise embalmed in the sweet, heady spirit.

Though some of the cheeses Occelli makes lend themselves to cooking, “this kind of cheese is just for the cheeseboard.” Any bread, or crackers with that? “No—no distractions. Maybe a glass of wine,” Germana advises, eyes shining, “but it is quite strong.” This king of cheeses with its crown of fruit can stand on its own two feet.