Thursday, February 28, 2008

And They Ate it Anyway… The Caves and our Cultural Heritage

by Zoe Brickley, Murray's Affineur

“Behind every cheese there is a pasture of a different green under a different sky: meadows encrusted with salt that the tides of Normandy deposit every evening; meadows perfumed with aromas in the windy sunlight of Provence; there are different herds, with their shelters and their movements across the countryside; there are secret methods handed down over the centuries. [These caves are] a museum… behind every displayed object the presence of the civilization that gave it form and takes form from it.”

-Italo Calvino, Palomar, 1983

Isn’t that fun to think about? Sometimes I feel more like a curator than an inventory manager – caring for fine examples of living history and brokering deals between the buying and selling teams. It’s a good thing that cheese is so fleeting in its prime, or we would be tempted to fill the caves up, and seal them off as a perfect exhibit of these varied stories.

I like to joke that at some point in every cheese’s saga there is a point where something goes wrong – like a mutated gene in the evolution of a species – but either out of necessity or curiosity somebody eats it, despite the apparent flaw, and decides that they’re on to something. In the big picture it begins to look a lot like natural selection; the domestication of a crop whereby a favored plant yields to the forks and turns of humanity’s evolution.

Let’s take the legend of rennet’s discovery for example – that magical enzymatic catalyst, which transforms liquid milk into curds and whey: As the story goes, back in the time when people used dried stomach linings as canteens (perhaps around the year 3000 BCE), an Arab trader thought to bring milk along to nourish and hydrate him on a day’s journey. When he went to drink he noticed that his beverage had quite a different consistency. Scientifically speaking, the rennet enzyme, still active in that dried container (from the tummy of a young calf, yet un-weaned) effectively curdled the milk by re-arranging its proteins into a semi-solid meshwork. The traveler, either parched or hungry, ate the contents and behold – he was pleased!

Rennet is still used today for that crucial step in cheese-making, though synthetic microbial (vegetarian) coagulants are often used in contemporary production. And true vegetable rennets like cardoon thistles and wild artichokes were discovered by people in ancient Portugal and Spain after grazing sheep gorged on the roughage only to give milk that curdled shortly after harvesting. Again, somebody probably had to drink the odd-looking milk to solve that puzzle.

Or how about the monks? They diligently washed developing mold spots from their young cheeses for the sake of purity and cleanliness, only to find an unusual sticky, bright orange surface layer develop. Unbeknownst to the well meaning brethren, they had cultivated a bacterial culture on their cheeses, known today as Brevibacterium Linens. The fact that they used the only sanitary liquids around, booze or boiled salted water, and the regimented way they organized their day further served to consistently select these ripening microbes – which prefer the resulting pH and salt levels. Its plain to see why they kept it up – these ‘washed-rind’ stinky cheeses are famed today for their unctuous puddingy texture and pungent, earthy aromas.

Only nowadays, cheese-makers try to replicate the same set of qualifying conditions that just happened to suit the lifestyle and inclinations of those monastic traditions.

That’s the exciting and tricky thing about modern cheese-making. Sure we’ve perfected the art of refrigeration; we have finely calibrated instruments for measuring temperature, pH, and humidity – as well as others for checking fat, protein and microbe content of milk and cheese. And further, in the places where artisan cheese is being invented these days, basic food needs are pretty well covered. So now, instead of the end (hunger) shaping the means, the means (artistic vision and skilled craftsmanship) must guide a focused end-product.

The challenges facing these cultural visionaries today will be looked at in subsequent posts. But today, let’s marvel at the sheer number of cheeses that, due to the happenstance of climate, tradition, and speciation, have sprung from a relatively small, though rapidly expanding portion of planet earth. It kind of speaks to the diversity of things that humans have been up to since the dawn of time – and how thorough we have been with our innate instruments, which detect ‘food’ and ‘not-food.’

Ooh, by the way – someone’s food radar broke out there in mail-order land: The other day somebody called up about the bland jelly they received in their fed-exed gift box. Armed with her A-1 investigative skills, our kind and patient operator finally deduced that somebody ate the ice pack. Yep – someone partially consumed the thawed gel refrigerant pack and then called up to complain about the taste. It’s true! (It was non-toxic, and our customer had a full recovery.) But that serves as a fine example of a substance that will remain a mere blip on the unfolding timeline of our species’ menu.

So go out there and google your favorite cheeses. Or look them up in the The Cheese Primer to uncover that point at which ‘somebody ate it anyway’. If anything else it will be an ice-breaker at your next schmancy get-together.

Go Big or Go Home Reading Assignment: Cheeses of the World – a big, impressive, looking coffee-table book that’s actually chock full of interesting stuff behind all of our favorite artifacts. And Wikipedia (the online collaborative encyclopedia) tracks a pretty good history of cheese and otherwise.

Cheese You Must Seek Out and Devour: Cato Corner Farm’s Hooligan. Mark Gillman created this cheese with his newfangled equipment in that old-world washed-rind style. The name gives away its rowdy pungent kick – but it doesn’t tell you about the soft side of this rascal – the inside that is, where you’ll find a gooey, fudgey texture and balanced flavor. Don’t worry; with most washers and rapscallions alike their bark is worse than their bite – so don’t let the stink scare you away!

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Parmesan in Cans No More!

On February 26, the European Court of Justice mandated that "Parmesan" can no longer be tossed around by any old cheese producer. We've grappled with the "Parmesan"/"Parmigiano-Reggiano" distinction at Murray's for some time. It drives us nuts that any junky old reconstituted milk powder can be tossed in a shelf-stable can with some salt and called "Parmesan." That stuff bears no resemblance to the glorious nuance and complexity of the real deal. Parmigiano-Reggiano has so much variety that we carry three at any given time: Parmigiano-Reggiano made by cooperatives, Parmigiano-Reggiano Bonati made by a single family producer, and Parmigiano-Reggiano Vacche Rosse, made with the milk of the nearly extinct red cow. But, let's be frank, Parmigiano-Reggiano is a mouthful, not just of good cheese. It's long and hard to say, and most Americans fall back on the shorter, more familiar "Parmesan." Personally, I shorten it to "Parm" most of the time.
Until now, "Parmesan" could mean anything, but this ruling states that only cheeses bearing the protected denomination of origin (PDO) "Parmigiano-Reggiano" can be sold under the denomination "Parmesan." This is good news for us, because we don't have to redo all our signage. For example, we carry Sartori Stravecchio, which we love for its compulsively caramel, sweet, approachable flavor. Sartori calls it Stravecchio Parmesan, but we stuck to our guns. It's NOT Parmesan, it's pasteurized, the texture is completely different (chewier and younger) and the flavor, while butterscotchy and wonderful, has none of the almondine austerity of the Italian King.
So: score one for helping consumers understand the distinctions in their food, and why hard, aged, cooked, grana-style, cows' milk cheese is not equivalent to Parmigiano-Reggiano. Now, what can we hope for on free-range versus natural versus vegetarian versus cage-free eggs? Whew.
I've pasted the full announcement from the European Court below.
Rome, 26 February 2008.
The European Court of Justice (ECJ) published today a very clear ruling: only cheeses bearing the protected denomination of origin (PDO) 'Parmigiano-Reggiano' can be sold under the denomination 'Parmesan'.
"This judgment is a clear victory for the producers of 'Parmigiano-Reggiano' and the entire sector which includes 20 000 operators and represents a turnover of €1.5 billion. This ruling will put an end to the activities of counterfeiters whose use of the name 'Parmesan' during the last years has had a very negative impact on both the economy of the sector and the image of our unique cheese. This is also a victory for consumers to which we offer strong guarantees of traceability and who will not be facing anymore misleading denominations on the market", stressed Giuseppe Alai, the President of the Consorzio of the Parmigiano-Reggiano.
The publication of the judgement of the Court of Justice comes nearly 3 years after the launch of the infringement proceeding by the European Commission against Germany (21st March 2005). "We are very grateful to all the people who gave their support to us on this case, in particularly to the European Commission which strongly defended the protection of the Parmigiano-Reggiano during all these years. It is an important precedent, not only for the producers of Parmigiano-Reggiano, but also for all the producers of products with geographical indication (DPO and PGI) protected in the European Union who often face abuses on the worldwide markets", declared Leo Bertozzi, the Director of the Consorzio.
The judgment draws on the main arguments of the opinion given in June 2007 by the Advocate General of the Court of Justice. The ECJ dismisses the action for noncompliance against Germany because the Commission did not establish that the German law does not protect sufficiently the PGO 'Parmigiano Reggiano'. By doing so, the Court questions one of the milestones of the European protection system of Geographical Indications (GIs), the fact that Member states must intervene to stop the abusive use of protected GIs (the so-called ex officio protection).
"We take note of the Court's interpretation on the effects of the protection granted at the EU level. The Consorzio challenged German producers before German courts which were waiting for this interpretation of the European Court of Justice to rule on the dispute. Now that things are clear, the Consorzio will obtain the protection of "parmesan" in Germany. However, the ex officio protection is a fundamental element of the GI system, in particular for small producers that do not usually have the means to defend their rights. This aspect must be part of the current reflection on the future of European system on Geographical indications."

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Episode One: How I Got into the Caves (Without a Jackhammer) by Zoe Brickley

Before working at Murray’s I didn’t know squat about cheese. It was about two years ago, and I had never shopped here before, or anywhere remotely like it. I moved to the city for culinary school and brought with me only a vague sense that I might be interested in this sort of thing. Someone picked up on this vibe, and sent me down to Bleecker Street.

If you’ve ever visited our West Village shop – then you are familiar with its ‘vast and splendid bounty’ approach to the cheese case and towering displays. Without some rules of thumb, or a tour guide, it’s hard to know where to start – and on what to end up spending your pennies on.

For me, the mere aesthetic of this mecca- including the contingent of red coats behind the counter (each surely endowed with a preternatural understanding of the dairy universe) were all too intimidating. I was totally out of my league. So instead of trying to beat this gang of snarky mongers, I decided to join them. Working behind the counter was a sort of extra-curricular activity while I studied French cuisine.

You might guess that I’m the kind of person who likes to know the rules before I play the game. This makes winning easier and more efficient. And if my specialized skill-set doesn’t match up to the contest, like in the case of all sports requiring hand-eye coordination, then forget about it; I’m not playing. Unfortunately, this usually ends up as a point of embarrassment for me, especially when I’m competing against earnest fun-lovers.

I’ve approached cheese the same frenzied and self-congratulatory way. And I’ve actually realized that you don’t have to quit your day job or lose any friends to get a solid understanding of the stuff. (its much easier to master than some terrific subject like wine or rocket science)

But to get to the heart of the matter you might ask… Why does my ‘business casual’ look revolve around insulated soft-shell performance outer-wear? Or, “Why is the in-box on my desk growing a bloomy rind?” And, “Am I anemic or does my translucent pallor come from scuttling to and fro subterranean transport and an underground workplace every day? In short, How did I end up working in a cheese cave? Well let me tell you:

Right place. Right time. Yep. Laure Dubouloz, a capable young Frenchie, was enjoying a summer abroad in NYC. She was filling in for the great Sasha Davies, who helped set-up the caves at Murray’s a year or so prior, and had taken leave for a European sabbatical. Laure was qualified to fill her shoes because she had grown up with century-old cheese caves right beneath her childhood home. That’s right, her father and grandfather are well known, real-deal affineurs in the motherland.

But around Juneish there washed over the land a panicked vision of orphaned cheese when Sasha announced that instead of returning to the abyss, she would instead embark upon this most excellent adventure: And Laure would return to France in the fall to take a killer job with the famed Herve Mons –Affineur and Murray’s leading cave-building consultant. But who would look after the cheese?!?

We needed someone, and fast. Someone to apprentice with Laure, learn her ancient craft in a matter of months, and master this obscure trade. We needed an industry fledgling and cheese maniac with no prospects for full-time employment upon her well timed graduation. We needed me. Or somebody kind of like me. (My mom’s reaction to my new appointment: “Oh, that’s cool – do ‘affineurs’ get health insurance?”)

So I won the cheese game by beating out all other competitors. Ok – I don’t think there were any other candidates, but had there been I would have crushed them! I’d like to think of this blog as my prize. So, over the next year, I’m going to explain some of the cheese facts and phenomena I’ve recently picked-up on while they’re still fresh in my mind. Peruse these segments monthly if you are just looking for a good time. Pore over them and obsess about the suggested cheeses and further reading if you want to be a champion…

Here’s a tip now:

Be systematic! My first day on the counter I tried every single cheese – and that’s like, more than a hundred. The only thing I got out of it was a food buzz and a tummy ache.

The next day I decided to only sell pecorino. I decided on this because I was formerly under the impression that there was only one cheese out there named ‘Pecorino’. Little did I know this familiar title was a mere umbrella term for all Italian sheep’s milk cheese, of which we carried approximately ten. Some were young and fresh tasting, others old and brothy, some were robust and barnyardy (yes!) Others were rubbed with tomato paste or studded with truffles. No matter who customers were, or what they asked for, they were walking away with some sort of pecorino. After a few days of tasting and discussing and peer pressuring – I had that little section down pat.

Go Big or Go Home Reading Assignment: The Murray’s Cheese Handbook – not only does it offer a hunky picture of Rob, the owner of Murray’s, but it also includes hundreds of cheeses with cheeky descriptions, pairing suggestions, and more! Also pick up Steve Jenkins’ The Cheese Primer – don’t even bother tuning in next month until you’ve read it cover to cover – all 517 pages.

Cheese You Must Seek Out and DevourPecorino Foja de Noce – the most sophisticated pecorino we’ve ever carried. The flavor is lactic (milky) and the cleanest example of ‘sheepy’ as an adjective. The flaking texture appears dry, but creams up on the palate due the richness (i.e. fattiness) of sheep milk. These fats help Foja’s subtle flavors cling to your receptors so that they may unfurl in a lingering finish. Plus, they bury it in a cask of walnut leaves for a few months to let it get nice and moldy, and that’s just plain cool.

~Zoe Brickley

Monday, February 11, 2008

Haunted Pumpkins – In February?!?

When its your full time job to baby happy cheeses, the way other outfits (mis)handle their product can blow your mind.

Like the other day I was cruise'n down the sidewalk, re-energized after my warming soup lunch (my desk in the caves is a breezy 53F). And I happened upon the open-end of a large truck parked right outside the store.

From a distance it looked like there were three enormous pumpkins, bound with twiney rope, as if they were to be hung from the ceiling of a haunted house. They were just sitting there unwrapped; no protective boxes or paper – just bruised and naked pumpkins all tied up on the bed of this truck.

I jogged up for a closer look – wait a minute! That's our Super-Aged Provolone Mandarone that we had imported especially for our February promo. It is meant to hang as it ages and it is supposed to be that deep, nutty brown color like super-aged gouda, but it's also supposed to be handled with care. We've been awaiting the arrival of this rare and rustic behemoth for weeks, months even. I approached the driver: 'Hey man, what's that?'

'You'd never believe it,' he said, 'its provolone cheese!'

To which I puffed, 'I know its cheese, dude. It's our super-special promo waiting to happen, but what's it doing getting thrown around?'

He looked befuddled, thinking he was blowing the mind of a tourist, only to find that he was blowing the mind of this cheese's future nanny. I raced to the back door so I could warn the receiver that we might have to refuse this abused cheese. I dutifully called the other managers in outrage. I am serious about quality control. Could Murray's Cheese accept a wheel that had been tossed around so thoughtlessly?

The answer I got was, "How does it taste? Let's start there, even if it looks like a rotten pumpkin. So I plugged the mangy spectacle to taste test it right in front of the driver and everyone.

I wanted to hate it. I pre-wrinkled my nose and readied my senses for disaster. And then I was defeated. It was totally delicious. It was at once intensely caramely and sharp, with a crystalline crumbly texture that creamed-up on the palate. Damn. I couldn't return a perfectly good cheese. A great cheese even – whose ancestors had probably seen worse days, lying around in hay carts before the arts of refrigeration and sanitation were perfected, waiting to be eaten. This was probably the most appropriate and true to life method of delivery for such a dinosaur.

So come buy a hunk while we still have it around. (Even though I scrubbed the hell out of it, you still might want to leave the battered wax rind aside on this one.)

~by Zoe Brickley

Wonder What Cheesemongers Do On Their Days Off?

Jessica Kesselman, a longstanding cheesemonger at Murray's Grand Central shares her Sunday:

It was no surprise to my five year old daughter, Emilia, when I announced that we would spend Sunday afternoon making mozzarella. We cook a lot together, and we keep upping the complexity of the recipes. Last weekend it was fried pork wontons from scratch. Now we were entering sacred territory- our beloved mozzarella of Friday night pizzas and birthday lasagnas, and memories of last summer's 'put-some-mozzarella-in-it' salads. We were armed with Ricki's Cheesemaking Kit and four quarts of Evans whole milk. We had a pot, thermometer and microwave. And we had all afternoon.

It turns out we only needed an hour. The process was so easy, Emilia handled most of the steps by herself. She measured out the milk, dissolved the citric acid in water, poured the rennet into the pot, and monitored the thermometer. I handled all things stove top and microwave. But we kneaded the curds together, releasing the whey, and shared our excitement that this milky, gooey mass in our hands was actually beginning to resemble mozzarella. We had turned milk into cheese in our house! Later that evening, as we sprinkled the mozzarella over our pizza dough, we laughed about the moment during the afternoon when, taking the curds out of the pot, it looked more like we were producing cheese jelly. And we both agreed- this was definitely easier than making wontons!

Monday, February 04, 2008

The Word on the Curd Nerd

Jamie Forrest is the self-proclaimed "Curd Nerd" of the eponymous blog. If you love our blog, we unofficial curd nerds at Murray's highly recommend it. Last week, Jamie came by for a visit to the cheese caves and a tour with Zoe, our incredibly passionate and knowledgeable affineur. Jamie has featured Murray's before, but his interest was peaked by January's email feature on our subterranean caves.

We're pleased to have Jamie as a new friend in cheese.

Jamie and Zoe walked the caves together while I observed while the two of them discussing incredibly curd nerdy topics like the specifics of bacterial growth on certain rinds, temperature and humidity levels of each cave and the development of molds in each cave. This is what Zoe manages daily, so she revealed a few of her secrets.

After his tour, he skipped off to the counter to sample the fruit of the caves. He ended up with several blues that he planned to make into the Ultimate Super Bowl Blue Cheese Dip. Do you get the correlation? GO BIG BLUE! Read the taste-test results on Serious Eats, another fantastic foodie blog he contributes to.