All Hail the King of Cheese: Murray’s Select Parmigiano Reggiano

Quick editor’s note: our team came back from Italy full of inspiration. This is the first in a series about our experiences and insights on our Italian adventures, findings, cheese and more. Take it away, Andrew!

My journey to the Italian countryside, somewhere between Reggio Emilia and Parma, began 4 years ago.  Before any of the aging, gorgeous wheels of Parmigiano Reggiano had begun their life as milk, before the cows had eaten the lush grasses growing nearby, before Riccio and his team heated the milk, added the rennet and salt, cut the curds, formed the wheels and then brined them.  My journey began before all of that, in a dimly lit conference room upstairs at Murray’s HQ, with a dozen of my coworkers.

On that afternoon four years ago, as we filed into the room, over thirty different plates of Parmigiano Reggiano were arrayed across the room and we were given simple instructions:  pick the best one.

The art of picking parm———————————————————————————————————-

Parmigiano Reggiano, the King of Cheese, is PDO, or protected designation of origin.  That means that any Italian cheese maker who makes it, must follow the same recipe and they must live within a very specific geographic area.

With aged cheeses, the goal is to get as much moisture out of the curds as possible so that the aging process goes smoothly and without spoiling.  There are multiple different ways to remove moisture from curds:  salt, heat, and cutting the curds.  The salt works through osmosis, pulling liquid out of the curds while adding salt back into them.  The heat causes evaporation.  Cutting the curds smaller and smaller removes any pockets that moisture could hide in.  In making Parmigiano Reggiano, they do all three.

It starts with combining skimmed milk from the previous evening with whole milk from the morning milking.  From there, the new partially-skimmed milk gets pumped into giant copper vats where it is heated, rennet is added, the milk becomes curds and whey, the curds are cut, the vat is heated, and then the curds are hooped together.  No cheese maker who makes PDO Parmigiano Reggiano can do this differently and that’s what guarantees consistency when you buy Parmigiano Reggiano at your local market.


Why go through this exercise 4 years ago?  Shouldn’t they all taste the same?  Yes and no.  The PDO helps to guarantee that the cheese you are getting conforms to certain requirements, but there are other factors at play in cheese making.  The specific feed of the cows, minuscule variations in temperature and time between cheese makers and in the aging process, and where the cows are in their reproductive cycle .  All of these pieces, when put together, can lead to dramatic differences.  So we tasted through the 30 different options, and we narrowed it down.

And then a few months later, we did it again.1

By repeating the tasting, we got to try wheels from different parts of the year and slightly different ages.  We tasted wheels that tended towards the nuttier side, we tasted wheels that were overwhelmingly fruity, we tasted wheels that had a distinctly “broccoli-ish” flavor, if my tasting notes are to be believed.

Each subsequent tasting helped us to narrow it down and finally we honed in on a favorite.  A perfect balance of nutty and fruity, salty and sweet, savory and umami.  Then we reached out to the farm, we locked in the entire production, and we had Murray’s Parmigiano Reggiano.


For a cheesemonger, the first time you crack open a wheel of Parmigiano Reggiano is always a memorable experience.  I remember my first perfectly.  I was helping to train some new cheesemongers in Cincinnati and was told to show them how to crack open Parm.  No problem!  But the beautiful thing about cracking a wheel of Parm happens every single time one gets opened up.  Milk, at most 14-16 hours old goes through the cheese making process, and once that wheel is put into its mold, the milk on the inside begins a two-year long journey.  When a cheesemonger cracks a wheel, that milk is seeing the light of day for the first time in over 730 days.  It is a beautiful and delicious moment and one that you can experience at Murray’s stores around the country this Saturday, October 3rd.


And finally, we’re walking in to the cheese making room where our Parm is made.  I’ve cracked many wheels of Parm, but this was going to be my first time seeing that milk in liquid form.


The first room we walked into, the cheese making room, was hot and humid and bustling with activity.  We walked through and into the refrigerated milk room, where the milk comes in each evening to sit and await the morning milk the next day.  All of the activity and heat of the make room are left behind as the milk quietly and peacefully enjoys the views.


Back into the humidity and heat, and we got to meet Riccio and watch him and his team make Parmigiano Reggiano.

From heating up the milk, to adding the rennet, to cutting the curds, to gathering the curds, to putting the curds into the forms and then pressing them, Riccio walked us through the whole process as he and his crew worked.


After settling into their final shape, the wheels take a 20-day bath in a salt brine to help further reduce internal moisture and bring the saltiness of the cheese up to the levels that we know and love.


And then, they wait.  And 2 years later, you get shelves and shelves full of the King of Cheese with our dynamic cheese maker!


Viva Italia! Murray’s Italian Adventure

Not to brag, but we at Murray’s are pretty lucky.  Sometimes you find yourself in Northern Italy, halfway between tasting Prosciutto di Parma smack dab in the middle of Parma and joining thousands of cheesemakers and cheese lovers in the cradle of Slow Food in Bra, zipping along an autostrada lined with wide open fields to one side and craggy mountains to the other.   The sun shines, the Italian pop blasts, and your conversation cycles on repeat, coming back again and again to the singular, wondrous thought:  this is work.  We are at work right now.

I may be biased—part of my heart lives in Bologna, where I lived as an undergraduate—but there is no better place to immerse yourself in food culture than Italy.  Even if you aren’t there specifically for food-related purposes, like we were, it’s nearly impossible to avoid how deeply the roots of Italian culture are related to the kitchen.  In the past few days, however, this love of food—and the impact is has on our world at large—went deeper still, with a confluence of events that warranted a tour, Murray’s-style.

We began our journey in Milan, where the 2015 Expo is winding down a several month stint outside the city.  With an emphasis on sustainability and biodiversity and a special focus on how food and food systems support our global future, the Expo was like an educational Epcot Center on steroids.  Each country, invited to participate and given no specific instructions other than the overall focus and spatial constraints, brought their A-game in representing themselves.  Architecture buffs would marvel at the absolutely extraordinary structures built to house each country’s variation on a theme—the straw lotuses flanking the Vietnamese pavilion, the dry stucco of the Middle Eastern countries, and the rah-rah Americana of our own.

Expo 2015: Milan, Italy

The American pavilion emphasized the methods our country will focus on in the coming years in order to help create sustainable food systems.    Our friendly guide, an intern with the state department, shared the emphases:  food security and farming and policy and industry, nutrition and cooking an research.  Food trucks parked outside serving regional American street food.  A series of short, fun videos walked folks from around the world through the American food traditions that perhaps go unnoticed in the rest of the world, in favor of our more popular food brands (there was, in fact, a whole McDonalds pavilion, as if they were their own sovereign state of fries).  The coolest feature, and indicative of the future food trends sprinkled throughout the content of the Expo, was an entire exterior wall devoted to a patchworked vertical garden, great swaths of kale and hot peppers and cherry tomatoes, the seeds sent from Michelle Obama’s garden and grown there in Italy.  Here’s to small footprint farming with great potential for the future!Expo 2015: Milan, Italy

No rest for the weary when you’re in Italy.  In the early morning mist, we passed from Lombardy to Emilia Romagna, our sights set on two out of the holy trifecta:  Parmigiano Reggiano and Prosciutto di Parma.   To watch Parmigiano Reggiano be made and aged is like a glimpse into history.  Copper cauldrons lined up in the make room, the hanging smell of whey in the air, great triton-like tools with a wired globe on the end, carefully thrust in an out of coagulating curd at just the right time, with just the right amount of force.  And then, wheels on wheels on wheels, just casually sitting there on row after row of shelving to the ceiling.  Tens of thousands of them, like ingots in a vault (and the perfect backdrop for many a hairnet-clad selfie). Giant crumbles of a cheese that hasn’t seen the light of day for two years—there’s no better breakfast.

Parma, Italy

But what is formaggio without salumi?  Onto our friends in meat, and a tutorial on the alchemy that is aging Prosciutto di Parma.  Just two ingredients, pork and salt, perhaps even simpler than cheese in its processing, but equally magical.  Great haunches of pear-shaped pork legs hang in room after room, hand-covered in sea salt in one, pork fat in another, all quietly hanging there and biding their time as they transform from raw meat to slices of silky, rosy Prosciutto di Parma.  Eating a plateful of it with a glass of Prosecco:  this is work.  We are at work right now.

Parma, Italy

And finally, onto the main event:  Slow Cheese  a biannual celebration of all things cheese.  We’ll dive deeper into this massive, town-wide festival in the next few days, but a few key trends from walking the show:  we’ll see more and more water buffalo milk cheese coming from less traditional areas than the historic area around Naples, and even some hints of camel’s milk cheese to come!  I was pumped about the burgeoning artisan cheese of Scandinavia, with great new options from Denmark and Sweden.  Not to mention the exploding craft beer scene in Italy, often neglected in favor of noble grapes and aperitivi.

Bra, Italy It’s the third time I’ve been fortunate enough to attend Cheese, as it’s universally called, and each time is better.  I revel in guiding newer colleagues through the madness, introducing them to cheesemakers from around the world, getting lost in my own translation, surrounded by the burbles of Italian.  On my first trip, six years ago, I dorked out at the list of attendees from just the American side:  the rock stars of American cheese.  Now, they’re friends, and this trip is yet another chance to share my own passion with our world with those who are newer to it.  Because even this many years later, I too will look at my pictures, now back on terra firma and home in New York, and marvel:  this is work.  That was work, and isn’t that amazing?

The Badass Buffalo Brothers: Bruno & Alfio Gritti Make Beautiful Buffalo Milk Cheese

baby buff cheesesBruno and Alfio Gritti grew up on a dairy farm—a cow dairy farm— near Bergamo, in northern Italy’s Lombardy region. It was their dad, Renato Gritti, who founded the dairy in 1968. In 2000, “we made a conscious decision to change something big,” said Bruno Gritti, who came to hang out with Murray’s on Bleecker Street and taste his buffalo milk beauties with us.

And so: water buffalo! The brothers bought 40 fine animals from a neighboring farm, and Caseificio Quattro Portoni as we know it today was born. The transition was a long, arduous process. “First we had to get to know the animal,” Bruno told us. Buffalos give six or seven liters of milk a day, in comparison to the cow’s 28. Buffalo is “a poor animal,” Bruno said. And yet buffalos live about twice as long as cows. “The buffalo is a work animal, a hearty animal, an animal that doesn’t require a lot.”


Today, the brothers’ herd numbers a thousand. For a time, Bruno and Alfio acquired more buffalo, but a thousand seemed to be the ideal number. “We rather keep the herd small, happier and healthier.” Caring for buffalo is a costly process. They eat a GMO and soy free diet, with lots of fresh hay and sorghum. The animals need a lot of TLC.

All the work is worth it. The herd’s milk is wildly sweet, rich, and delicate. There’s an abundance of casein, fat, and protein, and no carotene, so the color of the cheese is super white and nearly translucent.

In Southern Italy, fresh buffalo milk cheeses like mozzarella and stracciatella are ubiquitous and beloved. But in Lombardy, in the North, the cheese tradition is a vastly different animal (pun intended). Grana Padano, Gorgonzola, and Taleggio (cow’s milk, cow’s milk, and cow’s milk) hail from this region.

making buff milk cheeseNo one had ever thought of making aged cheese with buffalo milk before,” Bruno said. But the Gritti brothers thought of it, and we are thrilled that they did. They’ve harnessed the magical elixir that is their highest quality buffalo milk and turned it into nearly twenty gorgeous, unique cheeses, many inspired by the time-honored cheeses of their region. Behold, brilliant innovation meets tradition. The result: truly fantastic cheese. 

Sound easy? Not so much. Everything about making buffalo milk cheese is different than making cheese from cow’s milk: “different temperature, different rennet, different recipes.” It took the Grittis years and years of work, sweat and tears to land upon recipes and processes that produce incredible, original cheeses. And like all serious cheesemaking, crafting these goodies requires an epic amount of precision, dedication and effort.

brie_creamy_casatica_di_bufalaMaking cheese, like caring for buffalo “is all in the small details,” Bruno says. With an eye towards detail and deliciousness, they’ve created these life-changing treats:

Casatica di Bufala

This soft-ripened stracchino-style is a zaftig, custardy little beauty, barely restrained by its bloomy rind. Its rich and creamy, which means you want something bubbly & acidic. Prosecco fits the bill nicely.

stinky_quadrello_di_bufalaQuadrello di Bufala

The Gritti bro’s update on a classic Lombardian Taleggio recipe. It combines the borrowed recipe with something old and something new to create something distinctly buffalo. Creamy, sweet, and robustly pungent, after a round in our own caves there’s plenty of salt, mushroom funk and tang. A perfect match with a hefty Barbera. blue_blu_di_bufala


Blu di Bufala

Say ”Yes!” to decadence. This high-fat (like half-and-half), high-style (cube-shaped) cheese uses an ancient recipe that lends an ever-changing texture to their wheels, but their attention to detail consistently results in superbly aged cheeses. We age each wheel to buttery perfection and to punchy blueing that keeps us coming back for more. For snacking, salads and topping crostini. Perfect with Moscato d’Asti.

Dispatches from Cheese Camp, Part Six: Cheese Superfan Number One

tastingIt is not always easy to explain to everyone why you are so passionate about cheese. In fact, sometimes you are hit with a blazing moment of clarity that most people go whole days, weeks even months without really considering this culinary miracle. Friends politely nod their head while you work into a lather over the place of wooden boards in aging facilities. Siblings smirk lovingly as the beloved processed cheese casseroles are slowly replaced by raw milk farmstead cheeses. Parents scratch their heads and admit defeat over ever being able to predict anyone’s career path. Husbands and kids lovingly support you as you nervously flip through CCP Exam flashcards.

Cheese folk of all kinds typically work long hours, many weekends, evenings and almost no one gets rich. So why do it? Yes we love cheese- of course! But hey- I love potato chips too. It goes a little deeper for most people. When I really think about it, I love being part of something bigger- a better connection to food. I have this faith that if we all connected more to our food we would be happier, more responsible and have better lives.

IMG_5509Meeting cheesemakers at American Cheese Society for people like me is kind of like a 14 year old kid being let lose backstage at a concert. You have known their names, farms, animal breeds, herding practices and product lines. You talk about them all day to thousands of customers a year. So when Allison Hooper from Vermont Creamery is just sitting at a table checking her email or Andy Hatch is buying a cup of coffee next to you- its pretty easy to feel like fanning out like the David Bowe superfan from Almost Famous.

Of course from their perspective they are up to their necks in milk and cheese all day in a place beautiful but remote. So the idea of being a rockstar is a bit hilarious and I’m sure even a little unnerving. But in a culture that really seems to keep getting something out of the contributions that Kim Kardashian and Donald Trump this is comforting. I love that there is a place where Jasper Hill and Consider Bardwell are “trending”. I love that there exists a little tiny curd nerd community in which something that you make with your hands that feeds people makes you a celebrity.

From now on when people wonder how I could love cheese so much I can just say “Hey I met the lady that made this”. Yep- that will be a lot easier- thanks ACS and Murray’s!

The Milking: Straight Outta Comté, Part 2

By: Amanda Parker

The Montbéliarde is an elegant, pampered cow.  Covered in wide swaths of dappled chestnut brown and cream, she is the foundation of Comté, the source of the raw material that will, when transformed, become cheese.   She is cared for, fed, by farmers across this countryside, making her way gracefully through the bright landscape of the Jura Massif. 

The first step in the three-part chain of Comté, the dairy farm is crucial for the production of the best quality raw milk.  Under the set of regulations for the cheese’s Protected Designation of Origin that maintains the tradition and quality of the cheese—known here as the cahier des charges—a farm must provide an animal with the right environment that will make the best milk to be made into cheese.  In the Jura, this means that Montbéliarde cows, required by law to constitute 95% of the milk used for Comté, must have their own grazing area—1 hectare, to be precise, made up of the plants that make this region so full of biodiversity.  Under the cahier des charges, these lucky ladies can graze on pastures filled with grasses and flowers native to these high hills, part of the terroir that speaks itself in floral pops and verdant flavors of a wheel of Comté.

In the winter, and during especially dry summers, the cows will eat hay, dried from the spring and summer before and stacked high in bales in the barn.  Jean-François, our farmer friend at Villette-les-Dole, is especially proud of his hay.  He encourages us to climb a ladder and see!  See how the air circulates, the hay dries, la griffe (a large, scary-looking claw-like machine whose name seems to escape us all in English) distributes to the Montbéliardes, who graze now in the hot summer sun but line up in our imaginations during the chilly months, always choosing the same spot in the barn.  He grabs big handfuls of le foin and le regain, the first and second cuttings of grass for hay, and waves them under our noses, explaining the concentration of tall, waving stalks of grain in the first and the lower, buzz-cut of grasses and flowers in the second.  Jean-Francois’ son, Max, steps up and quietly, romantically, tell us that when they are cutting hay, the village smells of it, this foin and regain, and if you sleep with the windows open, you will dream of hay that night. 

High up in the Jura Mountains, now in the Doubs region—next to the Jura, and included in the designated area of Comté production—this landscape of dusty yellows and flat plains gives way to a second plateau.  Moving our way higher in altitude, the temperature has dropped and a new microclimate is immediately evident—broad pines surrounding wide, sloping fields brimming with some of the 576 grasses and wildflowers so engrained in the sense of this region’s terroir.  After a lunch of Comté fondue—more on that later!—and potato rösti, influenced by the Swiss border just a minute or two away, we walk the property of a classic chalet.  No cows are milked here, but Norbert practices the ancient art of shepherding—he is a berger, here in these hills to take care of a 60-head herd of local farms’ heifers between a year and a year and a half.   We tramp through hip-high waving grains and stop every few minutes to identify flowers in some pidgin French-English-botanical Latin language—gentian, whose roots Norbert carves into small, bitter bites for us to taste, the basis of the local liqueur,  daisies, local native orchids, clovers of all colors, small buttercups, native herbs.   

If this level of specificity seems, well, specific, it is.  Consider the result—raw milk, as it must be raw milk, held no more than 24 hours between milking and cheesemaking, teeming with microflora that will contribute to the vast array of flavors and aromas in a wheel of Comté.  Jean-Francois, clucking at our American pasteurization, explains “le Comté, il est fabriqué avec lait qui vit;”  Comté is made with living milk.  The French—and this story takes place, ironically, less than a kilometer away from the birthplace of Louis Pasteur—carry with them their microbial convictions, believing that the bacteria in the air, in the land, on the udders of the cows being milked, are the living, breathing foundation of great cheese.  A ladle of this morning’s raw milk makes us believers—a little sweet, like a wheat field in the sun, the dried grassiness of hay, and just a touch of clean animal—it’s the pure illustration of the land we walked and cows we (I) bumped heads with.  A drizzle of raw cream over a fruit tart is just insane.  Ridiculously indulgent, rich, so thick it seems almost cultured, like liquid crème fraiche.

From these hills and plains, cows and the people who tend them, comes milk, complex and ready for the next step in its journey to becoming a wheel of Comté—onward to the cheesemakers, the fruitieres that take this primordial liquid and transform it, into cheese.