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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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Passion, Tradition & Love of Cheese: Stories of Italian Cheesemakers

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, Andrea! 

Italians are very proud of their cheese and rightly so, for it is treasured throughout the world.  But their pride doesn’t come with arrogance, but rather a passion for carrying out tradition and history of their beloved country.  After spending a few days traveling throughout Italy, it was clear that Italian cuisine was full of history.  I was awe-inspired by cheesemakers who shared their stories with me.  Stories, about the passion, tradition, and of course… love of cheese!


From Finance to Formaggio

“I believe in Italy” cheesemaker Guido Pallini exclaimed when I asked him what he loved most about working on his family farm in the Maremma region in Tuscany.  After leaving his job as an investment banker in London, Pallini made a decision to return to his roots at the family livestock farm, a business of breeding water buffalo for milk production and farming land to grow crops.  Pallini had a vision of turning this quickly declining livestock farm into a cheese making business.  Integrating other activities into their operation would help make the family business more sustainable.

DSC_0815_blog5Today, La Maremmana is a fulling functioning cheese factory of buffalo milk cheese made solely from the milk of their livestock.  From Mozzarella di Buffala to Burrata to fresh Ricotta, Pallini’s dream of saving the family business came true.  “I felt a responsibility to support a community that was generations old.”  It’s easy to taste his passion and love in his cheese; unmistakably rich, delicate and full of flavor.

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Guido Pallini isn’t stopping there.  He is also experimenting with a few “non-typical” cheeses to Tuscany with the hopes encouraging his local customer base to explore new and exciting cheeses, like Blu del Granduca and Gran Gessato Maremmano.  He’s also using the milk of his livestock to create beauty products!

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With a full stomach and a sample of his new buffalo milk haircare product (a new business venture Pallini is working on) I was off to the next interview, full of inspiration about the love and passion of keeping Italian tradition alive!

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The Head, the Hands & the Heart

Eros Buratti has dedicated his life to bringing his community extraordinary cheese.  Working as the local stagionatura (ager) at La Casera, his small family-run cheese shop in the Piedmont region of Italy, Buratti focuses on collecting, aging and retailing regional cheeses.  For over seventeen years he has brought exceptional cheese to his community.  I was honored to taste through his creations during my travels and get a deeper understanding of his passion, love and philosophy of cheese!

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Cheese making, Buratti explained, is all about purpose.  Without a purpose there is no need to create.  His desire to create new, delicious cheese comes directly from the feedback he gets from the people who eat it and he is personally invested in creating unique cheese for all to enjoy.  “I make cheese that I like. That the people will like. I will always listen to them.”  The choices he makes in aging & collecting cheese are based on the community, one that is deeply rooted in Italian tradition.

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At last, it was time to taste through his amazing cheese. The most memorable for me was his collection of Robiola, a classic Italian soft-ripened cheese of the Stracchino family, all of which were different.  I have tasted this cheese before, but this was so much fuller of purpose.  As we ate each cheese, Buratti explained how one of his workers from Gambia hand-wrapped each of the Robiola in fig, chestnut or cabbage leaves, making each a different and special.  He explained that this man came from a hard life and through the education of cheese making; he has made his life better.  “Cheese making is not just about the business, it is about putting the head, the hands and the heart into what you are creating.”  The head: to think about what it is you are trying to create, the hands: to make the cheese itself, and the heart: to put passion, love and purpose into what you are doing.  His words were inspiring.  As I was finishing up the interview and saying my goodbyes to Eros, thanking him for the truly memorable experience, he introduced me to the man who hand-wrapped the cheese.  He repeated Buratti’s words, “the head, the hands and the heart” and I will remember that advice forever!
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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?

Technicolor Honey: Murray’s Visits Brooklyn Grange

honey 3Quick Editor’s Note: Honey week is September 8 – 13! Come celebrate (and learn) with us at our honey class, or bask in some delicious honey at home. We visited Brooklyn Grange, the leading rooftop farming and intensive green roofing business in the US. Christine writes about the epic trip: 

I’m pretty sure I took more notes at Brooklyn Grange than I took in most of my college classes. Chase was a wealth of knowledge about bees and the business of bees. Asking him a question was delightful, because he’d grin, take three seconds to think about it, and then answer not only that question but also the three next follow-up questions I had wanted to ask. He is passionate about keeping his bees and knowing all he can about bees, and we all were trying to soak up as much of that knowledge as we could in the short amount of time we were there.

honey 2One surprising thing he mentioned is that most people consider city honey to be dirtier than honey from rural areas, but that’s usually not the case. Rural areas often have crops that are sprayed with pesticides, which can get into the honey. In the city, however, most of what the bees eat is pollen from plants growing in parks, none of which is (usually) sprayed. In New York City, most of our urban honey is made up of pollen from linden trees. Even if his whole 65,000 square foot rooftop farm were covered in bee-friendly flowers, he said that it would only be 1% of what one hive needs in a season. Much like cheese, a lot of the feed goes into keeping the animals alive and healthy before it can go into creating that delicious byproduct.

My favorite part started when he pulled the frame out and brought it over to us. He invited us to push our fingers through the honeycomb to try a bit of fresh honey. We did. Remember that moment in The Wizard of Oz where everything goes from dusty black and white to ultra-vivid technicolor? That’s what that honey tasted like—that first vivid moment of color. It had a fullness of flavor that I hadn’t experienced in honey before, even delicious raw honey.

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Then, he said “you know, if you have some honey on your finger and put it next to one of them, they’ll lick the honey off.” So, I tried it. Sure enough, the little drone I cautiously put my hand next to sauntered up to my pinky finger and calmly began licking the honey off me. For her, it was just a cleanup on aisle four, but for me, it was lovely and adorable.

There were other fascinating aspects, like learning about tax breaks for green roofs and how bees turn nectar into honey and how they stay cool in the winter but really the most memorable part for me was when I got to pet the bees. Or did the bees pet me?

The Lunch Packer’s Guide to a Real Food Lunch, with Nina Planck

nina_kitchen_smile_carroll_20151-702x336Back to school time is either right around the corner or right now, depending on where you live. Lunch is officially on the to-do list.

If you’re anything like us, you really (really! really!) care about food. But, your’e also too busy to spend gobs of time slaving over a hot lunchbox. Skip the same ol’ sandwiches and upgrade to these simple, nourishing, day-making delicacies.

real food cookbookNina Planck wrote the book on Real Food. Literally. Nina is a farmer’s daughter, food writer and advocate for traditional food. (Oh, and did we mention she is the wonderful wife of Murray’s Big Cheese, Rob Kaufelt?) Plus, she lives what she writes–a life of real and wonderful food. Here’s what she’s packing in her three kids’ lunch boxes this fall:

Kids need protein. Nina and Rob’s kids eat Prosciutto di Parma, made in essentially the same way since the Romans: by massaging the hind legs of whey-fed hogs (leftover from the production of Parmigiano Reggiano) with salt, washing, then dry-aging the meat for 10-12 months, and sometimes even longer. The flavor is perfumy and sweet, beloved by kids and adults alike. We’re all about serving it for lunch with chunks of Pamigiano Reggiano, or pressed into panini. More of Nina’s protein-rich picks: boiled eggs and chef Amy’s egg salad, available at the Bleecker Street store.

blue_jasper_hill_bayley_hazenKids need calcium and high quality butterfat for vitamins A and D. Nina packs Swiss cheese and good Irish cheddar, Wisconsin cheese curds and Cambozola Blue or Jasper Hill Bayley Hazen with honey.

Kids need fresh fruit and veggies. Plus all this calls for a little crunch, so they eat pickles. We love Crisp and Co. pickles, which are snappy, friendly and complex enough for kids and grown-ups. Founder Thomas Peter of Hockessin, DE, uses his background — a master’s degree in biomedical engineering, a former career as a cancer researcher and passion for molecular gastronomy — to create pickle perfection.

Welcome back to fall, a new school year, and lots of real and delicious food to fuel your full and amazing life…and your kids’ minds, bodies and tummies.

For more real food inspiration, head to Nina’s site. Or better yet, read her books!