Straight Outta Comte: Finding France’s Best Cheese in an Underground Fort

Aaron Foster is Head Buyer at Murray’s Cheese. His relentless pursuit of all things delicious most recently led him to the mountains of France, where he discovered the best wheel of Comté we’ve ever tasted. 

Tap Tap Tap Tap Tap.

Tap Tap Tap. 

Tap Tap Tap Tap.

The cellar master at Marcel Petite smacks the hammer-end of his cheese iron against an 80 lb wheel of Comté. He hushes us with his eyes and pricks up his ears to listen for any changes in the uniform tapping sound. A slight drop in pitch or a hollow-sounding tap instead of a flat one might indicate a problem with quality, like eyeing or cracking in the interior cheese. He finds a dull spot, and draws our attention as he taps it again. Straining to listen carefully, I can almost imagine hearing a difference between that spot and all the others. Truth be told – I hear no difference at all.

As if to prove his mettle, he turns the cheese iron around and uses the sharp end to pierce the spot where he suspects the defect to be. Out comes a core sample of the cheese, and sure enough, a small eye dots the center of the piece. He passes around a bean-sized taste to each of us, which we savor, paying no mind to the minuscule “defect”. He pops the remainder of the core back into the cheese and smooths over the rind. If you didn’t know, you could hardly tell we were there. He uses the iron to etch a small symbol into the outside of the wheel – an indication, he says, of the defect and of how long he expects that particular wheel to mature. A lot of information for what looks like a 3-inch backslash on a round of cheese as big as a wagon wheel. But it’s more than enough for the team at Marcel Petite. These folks know their cheese.

Standing in a 19th Century fort surrounded by tens of thousands of wheels of cheese, it’s a strange sensation. Of course, 150 years ago you’d be wandering in between soldiers’ quarters and munitions depots. Fort St. Antoine (originally Fort Lucotte) was built to defend against the threat of an aggressive Prussian force, not to warehouse untold tons of fromage. Ironically, the Franco-Prussian war ended almost simultaneously with the completion of the fort, and for the next century, it sat essentially empty.

The subterranean construction and quarried stone edifices mean the fort holds a relatively constant temperature and humidity, around 46 degrees Fahrenheit and 95% humidity. The cool, damp, and dark setting no doubt made for some uncomfortable sleeping arrangements for the French soldiers stationed there, but it’s perfect for maturing Comté.

We’re in a large vault in the caves, almost 40 feet high, with Comté stacked floor to ceiling. I find myself wondering how the wheels all the way up at the top get washed, brushed, flipped, and tasted. As if on cue, I hear a gentle whirring sound in the next aisle over. Craning my head around the corner, I come face to face with a large… robot, for lack of a better word. More benign than HAL 9000 and less adorable than Johnny 5, Marcel Petite employs these robots to troll the stacks of Comté 24/7/365. They perform the Sisyphean tasks associated with maturing the 100,000 wheels of cheese that inhabit the fort at any one time.

Even more remarkable than the robotic feats of affinage are the human ones. The cellar masters of Marcel Petite taste every single wheel that enters the fort at least once, and up to four times before it’s sold! Every wheel of every batch gets the same tap tap tap to identify defects, every wheel is cored and tasted thoughtfully, and then marked with symbols to help guide the affineurs. This isn’t the most astounding part of the process.

What truly boggles the mind is the fact that all of this information, the tasting notes, the symbols, the tapping… it isn’t computerized or recorded in some master database. It’s a completely analog system. The tasters simply remember what each batch tastes like. Sure they write some crib notes on the side of the wheel. But their taste memory is so sophisticated, that they can remember the specific flavor nuances of hundreds if not thousands of batches of cheese at a time. It’s superhuman. And they can even extrapolate what a cheese of 4 months might taste like at 14 months old, and remember that a year down the line.

It’s this unique skill that allows the team at Marcel Petite to zero in on a flavor profile for Murray’s Cheese. We arrived at the fort with a goal: to find a Comté that matched our ideal of the cheese – the platonic form of Comté. We wanted something as close to perfection as possible. But perfection is rare, like a needle in a haystack, or one wheel of cheese in a thousand.

Comté can exhibit a whole range of flavors – from hazelnut to apricot to cultured butter to nutmeg to egg yolk to leek to bread crust, and everywhere in between. A great table Comté is above all balanced, with a strong yet not aggressive taste, and tension between the fruity, nutty, and savory aspects.

For the first hour or two, it was less about finding our cheese and more about establishing a shared “vocabulary”. Were we tasting the same flavors that the cellar team was detecting? Did we call them by the same names? In this context, tasting is a subjective identification of flavor compounds and molecules that are objectively there. We needed to make sure that what they called “stone fruit” we didn’t identify as “citrus”; that their “nutty” wasn’t our “bready”.

Once we established a baseline and they understood what it was we were searching for, and how we put it in words, the real fun began. Our hosts José and Philipe darted from aisle to aisle, and pulled down wheel after wheel of cheese, each one closer to the mark than the last. Their ritual for tasting created a bizarre sort of anticipation. They would remove a cheese from the stack, read the inscrutable code on the side, test it for defects, and then core it. They’d then step off to the side, sniff the cheese core, and then taste it. Whispers and looks are exchanged, some hushed fragments of conversation. After what seemed like forever, they’d look to us, and usually smile, handing a small bit to each of us to savor.

José’s impressive flavor memory did not fail us. Before long, we’d zeroed in on just two fruitières, and the wheels made during Spring and Fall. Something about the cheese made during the transition from Winter to Summer and vice versa spoke to us. These cheeses had exactly that tension we loved. The earthy tones of well-toasted bread and ripe plums anchored the treble notes of yogurt, grass, even cardamom. We had been seeking balance, and here we found it. Success!

Satisfied with a job well done, we ambled toward the office to share a glass of local wine with our hosts before heading back down the mountain. On the way we passed a dark alcove, and he motioned for us to enter. This small room housed the crème de la crème – the reserve Cru des Sapins that matures for upwards of 24 months, or even longer. Far less than 1% of the cheese matured at the fort has the capacity to age this long and retain the finesse and refinement that Marcel Petite insists on.

Philipe zeroed in on four wheels of reserve Comté that he’s been keeping an eye on for nearly two years. He generously sampled one for us… and we were bowled over. All the flavors we’d been seeking were there, but distilled and intensified. Yet it still retained a balance and elegance that made it seem almost like a tight-rope act for the palate. The longing on our faces must have been apparent. Before we could even speak the words, he had agreed to send us the last wheels of the batch, to celebrate Murray’s new partnership with Marcel Petite.

We’re honored and proud to share this cheese with you. It’s a one time shot, and when it’s gone, it’s gone. Rest assured, our Murray’s Cave Aged Comté will always be extraordinarily special, and always in stock.

New Finds from the Old Dominion

by Sean Kelly

Ask most foodies where the world’s best artisanal foods come from and the answer will often be “Europe, of course.” On the other hand, ask a Virginia native where the world’s best hams come from and you can expect a very different answer.

Virginia has its own rich culinary traditions with hundreds of years of practice to back them up, but recently products from the state have truly come into their own. In everything from cheese to charcuterie, Virginia is turning out some of the best artisanal foods their side of the Mason-Dixon and, indeed, anywhere in the country.

Meadow Creek Dairy

Tucked away in the highlands of Virginia, Meadow Creek Dairy is the picture of small production and sustainability. Meadow Creek has been nominated for awards and recognized on the basis of not only their phenomenal cheesemaking skills, but also aspects such as “good animal husbandry” (i.e. humane and responsible treatment of their animals) and their refusal to use pesticides in the pastures or in the animals’ feed. As a result, this dairy produces seasonal cheeses that change with the environment and are direct descendants of the rich land from which they came. Their Appalachian, a natural-rind, tomme style beauty, and Grayson, a buttery and pungent washed-rind that recalls Taleggio or Livarot, are prime examples: both cheeses glow a bright, straw-like yellow color (indicative of healthy, grass-fed cows) and boast complex earthy, vegetal flavors that can only come from naturally and expertly produced cheeses.

Surry Farms

Many “purists” scoff at the mere idea of an outstanding cured ham coming from anywhere other than Parma, San Daniele or the Iberian Peninsula. Poor, poor souls…

Enter Surry Farms, a 3rd generation collection of cure masters that takes the tradition of breed-specific cured meats and puts a distinctly American spin on it. Surry Farms makes their wide range of products, from bacon to hams to guanciale, with 100% purebred Berkshire hogs raised completely outdoors in and around the area of Myrtle, Missouri. When they arrive at Surry, these hams are perfectly marbled, rich in color and flavor, and simply beautiful. However, their journey has just begun. The cure masters take these hams and dry cure them, smoke them over hickory for 7 days, and age them no less than 400 days to produce their signature meat, the Surryano Ham. We’ve recently procured a few legs of the coveted peanut-fed Surryano that is even more silky and delicate than the original!

Olli Salumeria

What do you get when the grandson of an Italian salumi master discovers the pristine pasture-raised hams of Virginia? You get an exquisite line of prosciutto and salame proudly produced in America with traditional Italian methods and values, that’s what. In 2009, Olivario Colmignoli and Charles Vosmik sat down and sought to accomplish just that. Olivario (Olli) had been working for a U.S. subsidiary of his grandfather’s salumi business when Vosmik posed an important question: if you know the techniques and have the resources, why don’t you just make the products here? A week later, Vosmik procured several Berkshire hams for Olli, and the pair went to work. The result was phenomenal, and Olli Salumeria began to take shape. Now, among their line of cured hams, Olli has expanded to make several traditional regional Italian salamis that highlight both traditional European methods and prime Virginia ingredients. Their Norcino, Napoli, and Calabrese salamis all embody different regional Italian flavors while letting the rich Berkshire pork take the spotlight.

Virginia Chutney Co.

While hams and cured meats seem to dominate the foodscape of Virignia, accompaniments can’t be overlooked. Virginia Chutney Company makes amazing chutneys and jams that borrow from a wide range of traditions. The company’s founders Clare and Nevill grew up in East Africa and England, respectively, and met in the Caribbean where they began to make chutneys together. The duo moved to Virginia and have been making a spectacular line of sweet, spicy, salty, fruity deliciousness ever since. Their latest creation, Preservation Society Pepper Jelly made from red, green, jalapeño, and habañero peppers, brings sweetness, heat, and a perfect pairing for meats and cheeses.

Check out all of these great finds in our new Virginia State Fare collection!

Our Top 5 Beach Cheese Picks

Sum-sum-summertime! Beach season is officially here, and at Murray’s we’ve got one thing on our mind when packing a picnic for those epic days in the sun: Cheese! Yes, cheese at the beach!

Hot weather means you’re going to want something refreshing and light to snack on. Fresh, spreadable cheeses that won’t stink up your cooler and transport easily are ideal. Here are some of our favorites for the season. Just add some fresh fruit, a big bottle of water or chilled vino, and the soothing sound of ocean waves.

Something fresh and light: With the sun beating down and the salt in your hair, there is no need for anything heavy. Bring on the Petit Billy, a delightful chevre that doesn’t tax your palate or your wallet. It’s creamy and bright like a tangy whipped cream cheese, and pairs just as fabulously with fresh fruit.

Something rich and triple crème-y: A couple of bites is enough to satisfy—you are still wearing a bathing suit, right? Nettle Meadow Kunik should do the trick. A small round of rich, velvety goodness hits the spot and never leaves you wanting. We love this with fresh strawberries or raspberries.

Something soft: Seriously, if you are anything like me, you’ve already packed a towel, water, sunblock, reading material, bocce ball… the last thing you need to be schlepping is a cheese knife and board as well. Brebisrousse D’Argental is light and creamy, and has plenty of flavor without being super pungent. Now all you need is to find space for those petit toasts to scoop up the orange-rinded sheep-y goodness.

Something smoky to put you in the mood for BBQ: This is a no brainer – River’s Edge Up in Smoke! A delicate chevre from Oregon gets wrapped in a smoked Maple leaf and spritzed with a touch of bourbon. The finished product is tangy and fresh with a meaty-smoke subtlety that makes your mouth water. You’ll wonder why your craving for ribs increases exponentially.

Something with a bit more heft: Yeah, we said to stick to light and soft, but just to round out our list, let’s throw in Cave-Aged Landaff. Reminiscent of a cheddar, this semi-firm raw cow’s milk cheese aims to please. Pre-slice for snacking ease.

Fourth of July Picks: My Country ‘Tis of Cheese!

The Fourth of July is a time for sparklers, s’mores, slaw, and sun. Everyone spends the day grilling the same old hotdogs and burgers. I’m here to tell you to change it up this year! Serve some cheese!

I can’t think of a better way to celebrate our fine country than to create a cheese board brimming with American beauties, and as a Murray’s monger I’m here to guide you to some of the best choices for a fabulous 4th.

Vermont Butter and Cheese Creamery Coupole – Without these visionary cheese pioneers of Vermont the American cheese scene would be unrecognizable today. Over 25 years ago, VBC introduced us to fresh chevre and they still make some of the best stuff out there. The bloomy-rinded Coupole is pure creamy goat goodness, known to disappear quickly at potlucks.

 

Old Chatham Hudson Valley Camembert – The French have given us many priceless things over the course of America’s existence – Lady Liberty, Southern Rhone blends, Gerard Depardieu, and a killer Camembert recipe. With the addition of sheep’s milk to the classic cow’s milk bloomy, this upstate New York square honors French gastronomic traditions in the American style.

 

Roth Kase Sole Gran Queso – Since we are discussing American cheese, it is essential to recognize those dairy lovers out in Wisconsin. Many of their wheels are based off of European staples and are now winning American Cheese Society awards (like this one!). This cow’s milk wheel is a take on the classic Spanish Manchego, which is made with sheep milk. Flavors of nutty, buttered popcorn dominate, making this an all-ages crowd pleaser and a great companion to American lagers and juice boxes alike.

 

Bellweather Farms San Andreas* – The courageous Gold Rush pioneers paved the way for American expansion west. California is now one of the more prolific states for cheese-making, especially in the fertile Sonoma coast area. Like the esteemed wines from this region, San Andreas blows us away with its full-flavored, gamey intensity. Do everyone a favor and give this raw sheep tomme a go this Fourth of July.

 

Keeley’s Cheese Co. Across the Pond* – Our declaration of independence from England is something we share in common with Ireland, the country that inspired this creation. This orange-rinded beauty is truly a labor of love in the American tradition, emerging from a vision, a herd of Holstein and Jersey cows, and a willingness to stand on principle. Honor our visionary forefathers with this stinky, sweet, buttery wheel.

 

Rogue Creamery Caveman Blue – Red, white, and … gotta have a blue! Plus it is far and away the monger favorite behind the cheese counter. The Rogue Creamery out in Oregon is a stalwart in the cheese business, crafting amazing wheels in the blue tradition. This well-balanced, sweet and savory number just might be the one to win over blue skeptics, especially when paired with a darker, malty beer from the Creamery’s neighbor, Rogue Brewery.

 

Caitlin Griffith is a monger at our Bleecker Street store and good cheese makes her feel patriotic.

*San Andreas and Across the Pond are currently available in stores only.

Declare Ham Independence! Monday, July 2nd

Join in the celebration of La Quercia’s American artisan prosciutto, handmade from sustainably raised pork from the frontier territories. Let’s toast our independence, eat some delicious cured meats and have a good time!

When: Monday, July 2nd, 1-4PM

Where: Murray’s in Greenwich Village, 254 Bleecker Street between 6th & 7th Avenues

What: Ham Independence Day Party! Life, Liberty, and the Prosciutto of Happiness. La Quercia’s Herb Eckhouse and the Murray’s mongers will be sampling La Quercia cured meats alongside refreshing summer beverages. Come taste sweet and nutty bone-in Tamworth Prosciutto, savory pancetta, and crispy bacon. Plus special deals on all so you can really pig out!