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Napoleonic mill near Cuneo gets a new lease on life thanks to gourmet cheese

by Augusto Grandi

A mill dating from the era of Napoleon, in ruins; a few abandoned houses. Yet Valcasotto, in Piedmont’s Cuneo province, can count on the charm of the nearby Regia di Valcasotto, one of the least-known residences of the Savoy, Italy’s former royal family.

Beppino Occelli, whose fame in the world of top-quality cheese is by now well established throughout Italy, realized all this and started to restore the mill and the houses. He has created a gourmet hamlet – Borgo del Gusto or Borgo di Valcasotto, provided with an inn, a restaurant, a boutique shop and cellars where cheese ripens and ages. Even the mill is back in working order.

After all, the rationale behind Occelli’s decision to rescue the village was the same that led him to recover a hefty slice of Piedmont’s ancient cheesemaking tradition, from the Langhe hills to the Alpine atmosphere of Cuneo and Mondovì.

Occelli’s is a long story that began in the 1970s in a small dairy in Farigliano (in the Langhe area, a UNESCO World Heritage site), and was then progressively expanded – e.g. with a modern structure (also in Farigliano); a cowshed as winter shelter for dairy cows in Villanova, where he also raises goats; a dairy making mountain pasture cheeses in Frabosa Soprana; and ‘Borgo del Gusto’ in Valcasotto.

Now Occelli’s small number of collaborators has snowballed to 100 employees, plus seasonal workers, not forgetting the farmers and breeders who are involved in this major project to safeguard local heritage.

Valcasotto, in fact, incarnates this success story: it’s the ideal place to age cheese; the restaurant explores heights of absolute quality with its range of local dishes (not cheese alone); the boutique shop also sells local specialties like cured meats from free-range pigs, butter, chestnut flour, cornflour cookies from flour that’s been ground in the restored mill, liqueurs and cold cuts from goat meat.

And the inn accommodates those who prefer not to drive home after a dinner paired with a fine choice of wines; or those winter sport buffs wishing to don their snowshoes and hike through the woods, or maybe ski in the resorts few miles away.

There's even a stable available for anyone choosing to ride here, and you can visit such local landmarks as the castle that served as hunting lodge to the Savoys, or the Basilica of Vicoforte, which boasts the world's largest elliptical dome.

Or again, you can go as far as Mondovì and visit an extremely interesting little town that is not valued as it should be; and return to Valcasotto for a proper cheese tasting – from cow’s milk, goat’s milk and sheep’s milk. It is no chance that Borgo di Valcasotto also houses one of the didactic sites of the University of Gastronomic Sciences of Pollenzo [] as well as the national headquarters of Italy’s national Association of Cheese Ripeners and Affineurs. To Occelli, cheese is culture. Part and parcel of the heritage and traditions of this nook of Piedmont.