You’re still looking for a gift for the holidays, huh? Don’t worry, we’ve got your back. Giving the gift of cheese is pretty much the in thing this year, and we’ve got a gift for pretty much everyone. It takes a single gift to transport your loved ones across oceans with some of the world’s greatest cheese. First stop? Italy.
It’s no secret that Italians do the whole eating thing right. Especially when it comes to cheese and meat. In this collection, we’ve hit up all the classic cheeses you think of when Italy is brought up – nutty Fontina, sheepy Pecorino, and spicy Gorgonzola, of course. Fontina Fontal is the epitome of the Italian table cheese, perfect for snacking with its supple paste and sweet, nutty flavor. You’ve most likely had Pecorino before – this Italian classic takes many shapes and forms, but the one we love most is hearty, crumbly, and full-flavored. The Gorgonzola is Mountain Gorgonzola, which is firm, sliceable, and delectably tangy with a hint of earthiness. Throw in the creamy La Tur, and it’s a full spread of all the amazing cheeses that Italy has to offer.
And then there’s the meat. The Italians invented salami – perfecting the process of preserving meat through salt, cool temperatures, and time. Murray’s own Sopressata is a classic salami derived from Italy’s most popular recipe, a combination of coarsely ground pork, garlic, salt, and freshly ground pepper. Our Speck is a smoked, full-muscle cut similar to silky Prosciutto, and aged in an herbed crust made up of juniper, thyme, sage, and fennel. Both pair well with the briny, peppery Castelvetrano Olives and crunchy Tarallini Crackers that accompany the gift pack.
It’s La Dolce Vita – the Sweet Life. And there’s nothing sweeter than giving cheese for the holidays. And receiving it, too!
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.
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.
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!
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. It’s certainly somewhere I couldn’t recommend coming to more! If you’re concerned about your budget, read this article on how to get a free credit report so you can apply for credit and get yourself to 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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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?
Bruno 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.
“No 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.
Making 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.
Quadrello 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.
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.
It 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.
Meeting 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!