Rob’s Top Picks from the Cheese Festival

Every two years, Slow Food’s hometown of Bra, Italy, in the region of Piemonte, holds its annual cheese festival, and purveyors and buyers of fine cheese flock from all over Europe to come and taste and buy. Back in ’99, I got a call from a friend asking me if I’d like to come and teach some classes there on American farmhouse cheeses. I said yes and they put me up in a charming apartment in the old town for a week. There, I got to know the wonderful staff of Slow Food, and especially the visionary founder Carlo Petrini.

Two years later, I was out for a morning run in downtown Manhattan where I live and work when the planes struck the towers and I watched as the terrible events unfolded from a few blocks away. When it was clear the hospital in my neighborhood was not going to see much action, and did not need my help, I flew to Italy to help in the first-ever American cheese booth. The day of the opening ceremonies the few of us who’d made the trip over were sitting in the front row of the town square as the officials gave their opening ceremony speeches. We were introduced in Italian and when we turned around we saw the crowd of a thousand standing and giving us an ovation simply because we were the Americans and had the world on our side. The greatest tragedy of the decade is that this intense feeling of goodwill did not survive.

Since the Wall Street Journal presented our dispatch from the festival — our top 5 cheese picks (and trust me – you don’t want to miss ‘em) — I instead present my top 5 moments from Cheese:

-Visiting with Carlo Petrini, who bought us a lunch of tasty bombette, little pork snacks from Puglia and arranged for us to visit the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Pollenzo.

-Catching up with old friends Zoltan Bogathy, who opened Culinaris in Budapest many years ago; Mama Gisella, my self-proclaimed Italian Mamma, who took me around Italy when I knew no one and knew little about Italian cheese.

-Seeing Murray’s alums Zoe at Jasper Hill and Tom and Staci at Rogue Creamery in Oregon, and the founding mothers of cheese like Allison Hooper and Mary Keehne.

-Eating Favorites: the fabulous vitello tonnato at Floris in Turin; the Nebbiolo Risotto at Agrifoglio, also in Turin; the delicious gianduja gelato at Riverno; and the feast celebrating the american cheesemakers at the fabulous Ca’ del Re at Castello di Verduno, where we’d had such a memorable meal six years earlier.

-The American Cheese booth! We were there with Vermont Butter and Cheese Creamery, Cypress Grove, Rogue Creamery, the Cellars at Jasper Hill, Uplands Cheese Co. and Cowgirl Creamery.

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.