Murray’s Goes Global: Buffalo Will

Murray’s Grand Central Store Director, Will Whitlow, took a trip this October to Salone del Gusto in Northern Italy. On his trip he made a stop at Quattro Portoni, one of Italy’s premier water buffalo farms.

What comes to mind when you think of Italian cheese?  The great cow’s milk cheeses like Parmigiano-Reggiano?  Or the thousands of sheep milk pecorinos?  Eventually you will probably think of mozzarella from the south of Italy.  But is it really made from water buffalo milk?  You can’t imagine how often we’re asked just that.  Yes, the large, black, big-horned and wooly creatures produce astounding milk for cheesemaking.

Last week, I visited a unique farm in the province of Bergamo in Lombardy called Quattro Portoni.  In the last 10 years, the Gritti brothers, Alfio and Bruno, have transformed their family’s cow dairy into one of the standout water buffalo dairies in Italy.  Located in the heart of the Taleggio-making area, they were looking to distinguish their farm from those that sell milk to the big cheese plants that surround them.  Bringing the southern tradition of water buffalo to the north was exactly the right choice.

Quattro Portoni, or Four Gates, is named after the 13th century gates into their moat-encircled town of Cologno al Serio.  And a couple of their new, modern cheeses carry the names of those ancient, individual gates…Casatica and Moringhello.  Quadrello is their spin on Taleggio, the classic cheese of their region.  It’s creamy, sometimes gooey and always rich and a bit pungent.  Gran Bu, the big buffalo, is just that, a physically big and big flavored firm cheese with sweet and nutty overtones.

One thousand water buffalo live on the farm.  Of those, 270 are being milked for cheesemaking.  Since water buffalo only give about two gallons of milk per day (cows can give up to four gallons), it takes many more water buffalo to have enough milk for a thriving cheese business.  Everything from breeding to calving happens on the Quattro Portoni farm, and most of the crops they feed the buffalo are grown there too, with the addition of some of the spent barley from the beer producer down the road. Theirs is a fairly self-sustainable operation.

The day of my visit, the pristinely clean and shiny cheesemaking room was busy with 2 cheesemakers and 4 helpers making Blu di Bufala, their cube-shaped blue with light veining, a rich, fatty mouthfeel and a minerally tang at the finish.  The buffalo had been milked at 4pm the previous day and 4am that morning.  The milk from both milkings was pasteurized and in the vat by 6am.  They work in three small open vats because buffalo milk is a bit more delicate and feeble than cows.  It’s easier on the milk to work it in small batches.  The milk for Blu di Bufala is coagulated and cut in the vat, then the curds are drained on worktables (the whey is used for fresh ricotta).  Once the curds have drained, they are cut into slabs about 1”x3”x8” and layered loosely into the forms.  This is a laborious task and all of the cheesemakers and helpers must work together quickly to get all of the curds into forms.  Once all of the forms are full, they will rest for a few hours, be flipped twice and left to sit at room temperature overnight while gas is produced inside the “wheel” making little spaces for the blue to grow.  The following day, they’ll be flipped again and brined.  About 120 wheels were made from this batch and they are now aging in the farm’s temperature and humidity controlled aging rooms.

 

This is old-school, hands-on cheesemaking.  The cheese plant down the road making 100 times more cheese has the same number of cheesemakers.  Machines cannot make cheeses like those produced by Quattro Portoni.

Recipe: Grana Padano, Watercrewss, Fig and Walnut Salad

We’re Grana Padano-crazy this month!  Kick your salads up a notch with this perfect-for-fall recipe using one of our favorite nutty cheeses.

Serves 4

1/3 C walnut halves

2 T soft brown sugar

2 T balsamic vinegar

6 figs, quartered

1/3 C watercress, thick stems removed

2 T Grana Padano shavings

1 T olive oil

  1. Heat a frying pan and toast the walnuts until they turn golden brown.  Remove from the pan.
  2. In the same hot pan, sprinkle the sugar and leave to melt over a high heat before pouring in the balsamic vinegar—it will bubble rapidly.
  3. Add the figs and cook for 1-2 minutes in the caramel.  Take off the heat.
  4. Divide the watercress between four plates and pour the juices over the figs.
  5. Sprinkle with the walnuts and shavings of Grana Padano and finally the olive oil.  Serve immediately.

From the farm to your screen: A taste of Ireland’s Ardrahan

This fall, Murray’s is jumping the pond to find the next big cheese! Our staff are popping in on cheesemakers and artisan food producers all over Ireland, Spain, the UK and Italy to make cheese, taste cheese, and come back to New York to share stories and tastes with you. In our first installment, Louise Geller takes you on a tour of Ardrahan Farmhouse Cheese in the south of Ireland.

When you’ve spent years enjoying a particular cheese as often as possible – in quick snatches from the counter, with a killer wine or beer pairing in the classroom, on a cheeseboard at home with friends and family – it is a singular experience to walk into the room where all of that cheese originated.

This was on my mind as Jason (my colleague and partner in cheese on this trip) and I made our way south from County Tipperary to County Cork on a sunny Wednesday morning. Though rain had pounded for hours on the roof of the 18th century farmhouse where we’d spent the night, we were blessed with clear skies as we drove past untold numbers of sheep and cows happily munching on Ireland’s endless greenery.

It was midmorning when we pulled up to Ardrahan Farmhouse Cheese in Kanturk, and Mary Burns greeted us with the traditional Irish hospitality that we would come to know and love over our weeklong visit. Mary is part of a third generation of dairy farmers: the family’s herd of Friesian cows was first registered in 1925. Their transition into cheesemaking comes from admirable roots: In the 1960’s, Mary’s husband Eugene was dissatisfied with the quality of cultured milk products available for his family, so he started making fresh yogurt, sour cream and cheese with the milk from his own herd. Twenty years later, in 1983, he and Mary founded Ardrahan Farmhouse Cheese and started producing their outstanding product on a commercial level.

Today, Ardrahan is a modest but sophisticated facility. To begin our day, Mary outfitted us in hairnets and shoe covers and took us into the cheesemaking room. Twenty minutes prior to our arrival, the cheesemakers had added rennet to their vats of milk — so we were just in time to watch them cut the curd and mold it. The head cheesemaker, Pauline, gave us each a sample of freshly cut curds from the vat–they were slippery, sweet and incredibly fresh – and ready to become one of my favorite cheeses! Since Ardrahan is a moist cheese, the curds are cut into relatively big pieces. We watched as the cheesemakers scooped up the curds with buckets and deposited them into the molds, which had been neatly lined up on a table that runs through the center of the room. The cheese is lightly pressed (the mold and the press give the rind its distinctive lined appearance) and then brined in large vats before it is transferred to the caves. Jason and I were surprised to learn that Ardrahan is only washed a few times after it is made. Many washed-rind cheeses are washed several times per week throughout the aging process, but it turns out that Ardrahan only needs a few initial washings to develop its pungent aroma – based on the high stink factor when we receive our Ardrahan at Murray’s, those are some active b. linens being cultivated!

Our tour included a stop at the Ardrahan aging rooms, which were filled with the gorgeous co-mingling smells of milk and the ocean. We saw Ardrahan at several different stages of the aging process, from cheese that had been aging just a few days to a few weeks. The transformation is remarkable.

By this time, we were dying for Mary to cut into one of the promising orange rounds. However, this being the land of Irish Hospitality, we waited until we were comfortably resting in the beautiful dining room of Mary’s home, with a freshly brewed pot of tea on the table. Then and only then, Mary cut into a wheel of Ardrahan that was made only two and a half weeks prior to our visit. In the states, Ardrahan is typically aged at least eight weeks, so having such a young wheel was a unique and exciting opportunity. The rind was already fairly aromatic, although the paste had a ways to go before breaking down into the pudding-like texture that we usually find at Murray’s. In fact, the center of my piece practically crumbled into curdy pieces, reminding me that just a short time ago this very bite had been a handful of glistening curds in the vat we had just visited. The Irish market prefers Ardrahan at around this age, while Mary says that most folks overseas prefer a more aged cheese that’s stronger and stinkier. As for me, I now think I can safely say there isn’t an age of Ardrahan I don’t love, though I would most prefer to do my Ardrahan snacking 100 yards from where the cheese is made, at Mary Burns’ table with a pot of tea, with the very cows who provide the milk strolling by outside.

Taste Ardrahan with Louise & Jason on October 19th!

He’d Eaten Cheese His Whole Life Long

Here at Murray’s headquarters, we do a lot more than sell cheese. We teach classes about cheese, we age cheese, we make t-shirts about cheese, we devise the perfect pairings for cheese, we write about cheese….and the newest piece of writing comes from our own Rob Kaufelt. He put a spin on Renard the Fox, the 13th century French text that was translated in 1983 by Patricia Terry.

To set the scene: Renard has been injured by a trap and is attempting to eat Tiecelin the crow.

The crow uttered a mighty screech,
Attempting to get his voice to reach
Still higher, but the claw that gripped
The cheese relaxed, the treasure slipped.
It fell to the ground at renard’s feet,
But he, that master of deceit
Woe to the one he takes for prey!
Just simply left it where it lay,
Hoping, by this joy deferred,
That he’d also get to eat the bird.
The cheese in plain sight on the gound,
Renard the fox staggers around,
One foot behind the other drags,
His skin hangs off like tattered rags.
(although he’d only recently managed
to flee the trap, his leg was damaged).
All this for tiecelin’s benefit:
‘Alas, he says, ‘that god sees fit
To afflict poor me with miseries,
By saint mary, i swear that cheese
(God’s curse on it!), it smells so strong
Will do me in in before too long.
For everyone i know agrees
There’s nothing as bad for wounds as cheese.
It’s strictly forbidden in my diet;
I haven’t the least desire to try it.
I beg you, tiecelin, come down here.
If you don’t help, my end is near!’

Tiecelin takes pity on him, but realizes his mistake in getting too close, losing four feathers. he chides renard for his deceitful acting, and annoyed, tells him the cheese is all he’ll get that day.

Renard didn’t bother to insist,
He was busy making up for what he’d missed.
By eating the cheese to the very last bit
(but there wasn’t very much of it);
The way it went down would make you think
It was some kind of delicious drink.
You could look in any land you please
And never would you find such cheese;
He’d eaten cheese his whole life long
And certainly he could not be wrong.
So did renard add up the score,
And his injured leg did hurt no more.

Revised by Rob Kaufelt. Photo courtesy of reynaerts.be

I Just Can’t Wait to be King (of Cheeses)

by
Miriam Arkin

Here at Murray’s we find that the coming of fall (heralding all the delicious things that can be pulled from the ground, cut from the vine, and thrown into a pot) is the perfect time to pay homage to a bounteous cheese, Parmigiano-Reggiano.  We’ve stacked big golden wheels all over the store, and even split a few open—all the better to see how the two-inch thick rind gives way to a perfectly grainy texture.  But don’t be too quick to look beyond the rind!  It too has become an Italian staple, used to flavor soups and stews, and given to infants as what must be the world’s best teething companion.  Italians produce about 3 million wheels of Parmigiano annually, of which only 16% is exported abroad.  Interestingly, whether it is consumed domestically or exported, every single wheel of Parmigiano is inspected for quality by a member of an organization whose very existence seems like an ornate American fantasy—the Consorzio Parmigiano-Reggiano, whose responsibility it is to test and grade every single wheel of Parmigiano made in Italy.  Why care?  At the heart of the Consorzio are its inspectors, masters of cheese whose wise judgments guarantee quality even as production of Parmigiano increases every year.

Parmigiano-Reggiano is made on farms in the provinces of Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, Bologna left of the river Reno and Mantua right of the river Po.  Cheesemaking follows a careful pattern: the evening’s milking is set aside overnight, allowing the cream to rise.  The following morning, the cream is skimmed off the top, and the skimmed milk is then combined with that morning’s whole milk in bell-shaped copper cauldrons.  The milk is heated and rennet is added to curdle the milk.  After a few minutes, the fresh curd cut with a long bladed tool called spino into rice sized grains.  It is then heated again, allowed to cool, and removed from the copper vat with a cheese cloth, yielding about two wheels worth of cheese.  Once these wheels have spent 25 days in a salt water bath, they are set in special temperature and humidity controlled rooms where they age for at least 12 months.

After a year of aging, the Consorzio steps in, sending inspectors out to test every single wheel.  This is a feat in and of itself, but more fascinating still is how the inspections are carried out.  Instead of using a cheese iron (the long tubular beak used to reach the middle of cheeses) to take samples, the inspectors use them to gently tap along the exterior of the cheese.  They are able to listen for sounds that indicate cracks, voids, or other undesirable faults in the cheese.  That’s right, listen for them.  Based on their determinations, the 80lb wheels of cheese are seared with one of two large and clearly defined oval brands—“Parmigiano-Reggiano” for top quality cheese that can continue aging, and “Parmigiano-Reggiano Mezzano” for lesser quality cheese that should be consumed young.  These lesser wheels are further branded with broad parallel lines, making it impossible to sell them as their worthier cousins.  If a wheel doesn’t meet the requirements to be called Parmigiano-Reggiano the smaller dotted inscription applied at the time the cheese was made is scraped entirely off the cheese, so it cannot be sold as the real thing.  After 18 months of aging, cheesemakers can have a Consorzio inspector come back to determine whether cheese can be further categorized as “export” or “extra” quality.  Export quality gets shipped around the world, extra quality is set aside to age for longer than the traditional 24 months, producing a dryer and more intense cheese.

We’ll be celebrating this auditory genius all month, and we’ve got enough wheels of export quality Parmigiano to circle the store, so please do come in for a taste.