n the foothills of the Piedmont’s Langhe, in the heart of nebbiolo grape country, sits the town of Castelmagno, population 95. A few kilometers from the French border, it has been producing cheese in the same manner for 800 years.
The cheese, named after the town, is made from the whole milk of local cows raised entirely on fresh forage. It is snowy white and has a consistency similar to Parmesan, although it crumbles a little more easily. The taste is sharp with an added nutty flavor.
I first tasted Castelmagno last fall at Antico Arco, a restaurant atop Rome’s Gianicolo, as part of a risotto al castelmagno made with a red wine reduction sauce. Appropriately, the wine used in the dish was a Barolo, the noblest terminus for nebbiolo grapes.
I split the risotto with a friend as part of a larger tasting menu. When she took the first bite her fork fell from her hand and hit the plate with a clang. The dish was that good. I spent the next months browsing cheese stands for Castelmagno, eventually spotting it at a counter in the Mercato Trionfale on Rome’s Via Andrea Doria.
At €43 per kilo, the price slowed me for a moment, but I finally bought three etti, 300 grams, to have enough to experiment with.
My trips to the market are generally in the morning, and this time was no different. I got home at 10:30 a.m. with all the fixings for an amazing and ample dinner.
But I was feeling impatient. My desire to see if I could match the restaurant got the best of me. I told my roommate that lunch was a 1 p.m. He promptly cleared his schedule and set out to find a good bottle of wine.
For the risotto I sautéed finely chopped white onions with a little bit of olive oil at the bottom of a pot. When they were translucent, I added the rice and stirred it vigorously so none of the grains would burn. After about five minutes, the grains actually started to crackle; they’d begun to toast.
At that point I added already boiling vegetable broth, covering the rice by about two fingers. From there I kept stirring and adding broth as needed. When the rice was cooked through I added the grated cheese and stirred it until all of it melted.
For the wine reduction I used wine homemade by the grandfather of a friend of my roommate: a mishmash of Calabrian grapes, primarily Gaglioppo. That simmered for half an hour with a bit of broth and chopped carrots, celery and onions.
We sat down with our plates of steaming rice and I poured the sauce over the top. I quickly checked the results. My roommate didn’t wait for my reaction and dove in. The eating “silence” that followed said the rest.
About half way through, we slowed down and settled into a critique. The broth had stained the rice a light brown tint and the hints of vegetables from the broth overcame the flavor of the cheese. The sauce was a little too watery, and didn’t hold its form. My meal had been good, but it could have been better.
At this point we were still discussing what we would do differently. The discussion continued even after we finished and mulled over a second glass of wine.
I began to see where it was all leading. “With good wine like this,” said Domenico, “I can eat to infinity.” He then handed over a great bottle of 2004 Montefalco Rosso for round two of the sauce.
My stubborn nature kicked in. By now I knew what it would to make the dish truly amazing. Plus, I still had all the ingredients on hand. I’d kick myself if I didn’t get it right. So back to the kitchen it was.
This time, I used just a quarter of a white onion, light salted water instead of broth, a dash of cognac, a roux to thicken the reduced wine sauce.
Round two was perfectly white. I also made my presentation more artistic. I drizzled the thicker sauce in concentric circles and it held its shape beautifully: a series of royal purple switchbacks against the pure white rice mountain. We both stopped for a minute and stared.
Domenico took the first bite. But now he was staring at the meal. Can’t have your risotto and eat it, I guess, so we dug in. Again, silence followed. Then Domenico looked up and asked, “Come se dice ‘le parole sono superflue‘?” — “How do you say ‘words are superfluous'”?
I translated and we continued to eat in silence.
Ingredients (serves 2)
- 4 tbsp olive oil.
- 1/2 white onion, finely chopped.
- 3 large handfuls white rice.
- 1 tbsp cognac.
- 100 grams of finely grated Castelmagno cheese.
- 2 tbsp sea salt.
- 2 cups full bodied red wine.
- 2 tbsp flour.
- Pour wine in small pot and simmer on low heat for 30-40 minutes.
- Heat 2 tbsp olive oil in a small saucepan. Add flour slowly, whisking constantly.
- In a small pot, bring 5 cups water with sea salt to boil.
- Heat another 2 tbsp olive oil in a medium sized pot. Add onion and cook until translucent, 3-4 minutes.
- Add rice, stir constantly for 4-5 minutes until the rice starts to crackle.
- Pour water in pot with the rice, enough to cover the rice by two fingers. Add more water as needed until the rice is cooked through.
- Add cheese and stirring a little more until it’s completely melted.
- Combine roux and reduced wine. Plate risotto and drizzle wine sauce over. Serve immediately.
— Ristorante Antico Arco , Piazzale Aurelio, 7. Rome. Open daily. Tel. 06.581.5274.