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.”

buff

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. 

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!