The heady delight of ubriaco, the drunken cheese
An Italian cheese imbued with wine and other stories from the cheeseboard
It was at an open-air market stall early one morning in Venice that I first discovered ubriaco or drunken cheese. I fell in love with the notion even before tasting it.
“DRUNKEN CHEESE”, said the sign in English pinned to a hard, white cheese with a deep burgundy-coloured rind and veins. It immediately piqued my interest. The vendor told me, “Ubriaco means drunk-a in Italian,” before handing me a small, crumbly wedge to try. It was soft and fresh, and tasted sublime, with a hint of red wine in the thunderbolt-shaped lines on the inside.
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The story of the cheese gushed forth like the Arno river from the arches of the Ponte Vecchio bridge steps away. “In the War, the first World War,” he said, “soldiers from Austria and Hungary raided farms in the Treviso area not far from here. They were hungry, and they took everything they could carry away—loaves of bread, bottles of wine, chunks of cheese, fruits, vegetables, anything. One day, a cheese maker heard them coming and slipped a wheel of cow’s cheese into an open barrel of red wine to hide it. It sank to the bottom and the soldiers missed it. The next day, when the farmer pulled it out, the dark wine had covered it and slipped into the cracks. He tasted it. It was wonderful. Allora! Our ubriaco cheese came to be!”
A charming backstory to go with a winning combination of flavours, I thought. I indicated a point, he cut a wedge, and I walked away with a revelation wrapped in parchment paper and string.
Continuing on my long walk, I began to reminisce about other chance encounters with cheese. Once, in the rugged and remote heart of the Italian island Sardinia, I came across a white cheese called casu marzu in a village market. The recipe turned out to be ancient and outlandish—shepherds leave the goat’s cheese outdoors, so flies can invade and feast on it. They lay their eggs in it, and the cheese is considered a ready-to-eat-delicacy when the larvae hatch and turn into squirming, pooping maggots. I have yet to taste it.
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The food markets of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan showcase mounds of hardened, salty and chalky yogurt balls called kurut. They are an acquired taste but immensely popular with the locals, and they make a pragmatic, dry and long-lasting snack for schoolchildren and anyone on the go.
While staying in ager (a traditional Mongolian tent) with a family of nomadic herders, I had squares of soft, tart airag cheese made from fermented mare’s milk.
Then there was the time I was kicked by a fluffy white llama as I tried to pet it. I was with a farmer family, 14,000ft above sea level, by Lake Titicaca in Peru. They served fresh and delicious cheese empanadas. When I asked what cheese it was, he waved his head at the glowering creature.
As I mulled these encounters, the heady delight of discovering ubriaco took hold. Back in London, I discovered it was available at a handful of cheese shops, such as La Fromagerie off Marylebone High Street and the Drunk Cheese stall in Borough Market. The latter is dedicated to ubriacatura, or cheeses soaked in all manner of alcoholic drinks. There, I tried blue cheese imbued in Amarone (red wine), pecorino lashed with beer, stretched cow’s milk refined with sparkling white wine, and orange liqueur infused in a blend called Fiore d’ Avancia. The impressive array of cheeses make for a fetching display, with varied shapes and rinds of purple grape, beige seeds and green herbs. Their site, www.drunkcheese.co.uk, is replete with images of inventive combinations.
Marrying wine and cheese, two popular ingredients that have been paired for centuries, was an idea waiting to happen, and its success has caught on. But we cannot let cheese makers have all the fun.
So go ahead and devise new pairings in your own kitchens. You no longer need to wonder what to do with small quantities of wine and other types of left-over alcohol. Invoke the mantra of the three Rs—reduce, reuse, recycle. Red wine, when cooked, turns a deep purply brown, with the flavour intensified. I found a host of ideas on the net and stirred up a jug of sangria. A champagne vinaigrette salad dressing followed. White wine with grated cheese combined beautifully as a sauce for angel hair pasta as well as a fish marinade. Then came desserts such as wine-soaked peaches and wine ice cream.
I soak hand-torn chunks of parmigiana cheese in left-over wine. In just a few hours the rough edges are covered in a maroon tint, and the delicate flavour from the wine gets absorbed. I leave them to air-dry for a couple of hours, and serve them as home-made ubriaco.
Luis Fernando Olaverri, the famous vintner, said, “Wine is the only artwork you can drink.” Well, given all the recipes you can dream up, you can have your wine and eat it too!