Tuesday, November 03, 2009

An Afternoon in Murray's Cheese Caves

New York City is bursting with food adventures. I am an advocate of creating my own, whether it be a walking food tour along Roosevelt Avenue in Queens or just a visit to a new restaurant. But sometimes its about taking advantage of organized food experiences offered in the city. Last month I had a chance to tour the cheese caves at Murray's Cheese. I previously noted Murray's as one of the great specialty food shops in the city. During Open House New York weekend, architecturally significant institutions all around the city open with free admission and tours, and Murray's participates, offering an afternoon of tours of their cheese caves.

I snagged a spot on one of the small, popular tours by e-mailing them as soon as the guide for the weekend became available. Throughout the rest of the year, you can get a tour of the caves with a cheese tasting as one of the classes at Murray's, but it costs $75. So this felt like a great opportunity.

Before the tour, while waiting for everyone to arrive, we headed to a classroom on Murray's upper level where some cheesemakers were and had a taste of a mild, young goats milk cheese from Vermont along with some sparkling wine.

The tour typically allows about 10 people to join. For our time slot, there were actually no-shows and some walk-ins were able to get in. We were given hairnets and led into the back doors, through a hallway in what looked like a stock area, down some stairs and another hallway — a real behind-the-scenes feel. It felt like we were being let in on a secret!

Our energetic and passionate tour guide was incredibly informative during the half-hour underground exploration into the world usually belonging only to the affineurs (the guardians of the cheese). When asked how she got her job at Murray's, she explained that she had worked in magazine publishing and used to take her clients to Murray's and eventually got an internship that turned into a full-time job.

A set of four, heavy wooden doors with large silver latches guarded the cheeses and piqued my curiosity. What would it look like inside? Which would we get to see?


The guide pulled open the first door. The small cave had carts stacked with metal trays of the newest cheeses, mostly soft, bloomy-rind ones like goat cheese. It smelled fermented, like — as the guide explained it was — milk spoiling, but in a controlled environment. Our guide went in and picked up some of the cheese to show us its characteristics.

There were French cheeses that had been partially aged in France and cryovaced with nitrogen to pause the aging process while they were shipped. The ash-covered, pyramid-shaped hunks of cheese were called Valencay. The cheese is covered in ash to help the molding process. The rumor behind the shape is that Napoleon returned to France after being defeated in Egypt and when he saw the cheese, it reminded him of the pyramids. So, he chopped off the tops in anger. And the cheese has continued to be molded in that shape ever since.

The second room was filled mostly with aged cheeses, resting on wooden shelves atop straw mats. The straw was there to help the cheese absorb some of that flavor, like the grasses eaten by the animals from which the cheese had come. The smell of ammonia, a natural byproduct of growing mold, permeated the air. We were told that all the mold on the cheeses was natural and each kind of mold produces cheeses of different shapes, colors and appearances. One cheese had a dark black rind that developed because juniper berries had been rubbed into it. An irregular round of bloomy rind cheese called Ticklemore had some red mold spots that it picked up from other cheeses. The guide explained that the rinds are edible - eating them will never really hurt; it's more a matter of taste.


The third room we entered stored the washed-rind cheeses and it was the largest of the rooms we saw. Before entering, the guide explained to us that this room is kept extremely humid, sometimes even almost misty, like a cold sauna. The piercing ammonia smell stung my nostrils even more in here. The giant 30 pound wheels of cheese dominated this room. Montgomery cheddar, Pecorino, Caciocavallo.

After we resurfaced in the store and browsed the cheese offerings, we saw many of those cheeses we had just learned about. It was an afternoon well spent on a food excursion and a bit of cheese education!

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