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