It’s easy to romanticize the public relations allure of having an in-store cheese cave such as the one in Tony Caputo’s Market and Deli. Only a few stores in urban areas around the country can make a similar claim. And, then there are the impressive setups where affinage has revived demand for a product that should never be wrapped in plastic or wax – the five caves at Murray’s Cheese in New York City and the seven vaults in the Cellars at Jasper Hill in Vermont.
“It’s thankless work,” says Matt Caputo. “There are never-ending hurdles. We have to scramble every time the cooler breaks down and the repairs are not like any normal refrigeration work. Coils have to be replaced every 18 months and the cost goes up rapidly each time. After two separate nights when the cave was completely off, we had to push a thousand times harder around the clock to make sure that every setting for the cheeses was correct.”
With maintenance costs atop the initial setup that ran upwards of $65,000, the Caputo’s cheese cave, three and a half years running, readily classifies as a sinkhole for money. That is, if one examines the venture from a purely business accounting perspective.
However, Caputo’s core business model considers that authenticity cannot be mass-produced. Viewed as incidental to the longer project of building a food culture where the revival of traditional agricultural products and markets engages the interest of individual customers, the maintenance headaches and unexpected costs constitute a worthy investment.
“The learning curve has been incredibly steep but we’re gaining more confidence as we near plateaus for some of our best artisanal cheeses,” he says. Likewise, employee Antonia Horne has embraced her role, keeping a fantastically detailed notebook of the aging (affinage) activity in the cave that helps Caputo and others know just when a cheese is at its perfect state for sampling.
Of all the specialty foods carried at Caputo’s, cheese is the most complex. It is a “living product” that must be handled with exceptional care. Shipped or handled improperly, it easily can be destroyed. And, then, aging – which requires an environment of controlling temperature and humidity with the precision of a scientific lab setting – must allow the ecology of the correct molds to be manifested in bringing out the cheese’s full complement of terroir and tasting notes. In the cave, for example, a young Chaource which is slightly sour with a fruity flavor touched with a small acidic tone matures within three and a half weeks into a small smooth, creamy, mushroomy round.
One of the most promising successes has been the cheddar, covered with butter-soaked bandages and aged in house from fresh curd to finish ($19.95/pound). At 11 months, the cheese offers interplay of acid and sweet notes, along with mild to strong flavors suggesting asparagus and horseradish opens up a sense of terroir never possible in its mass produced counterpart.
Aged at least six months and preferably longer – up to 10 to 16 months – Grotte Caputo ($14.95/pound) mixes hints of sweetness and nuttiness with a sharp ambrosial profile in a cheese made from Holstein milk in Wisconsin. A remarkably versatile companion to most wines, the cheese epitomizes Caputo’s essential role in being a genuine intermediary when it comes to communicating the distinguished pedigree and place of cheese for the customer.
Furthermore, cheese buying at Caputo’s is a distinct customer-friendly process. First, customers get as much as they want or need from a particular cheese. In fact, because affinage is so vital to bringing out a cheese’s exceptional qualities, one is better off only buying enough for a specific use or occasion. Indeed, the cheese, left in one’s refrigerator at home surrounded by a common plastic wrap, loses a good deal of its vitality.
Some also might flinch at paying $20 or more per pound for some cheeses but once one realizes just how much taste and flavor can be obtained at $5, $8, or $10, the price-quality-value paradigm is readily evident. And, there are quite a few cheeses that are spectacular bargains in the $12-$15 per pound range. The point is that cheese aging not only guides artisan cheese producers in navigating the market but it also helps cheese consumers – literally on a person by person basis – to comprehend the often-invisible realities of artisan production.
It’s not primarily about short-term profitable margins. It’s about building a long-term trust for a complex product – for the artisanal producer as well as the customer who relies on Caputo and his colleagues to recommend the best product for his or her needs, desires, and expectations.
Without a doubt, the cave provides an excellent pretext for cultivating relations with local cheese producers. A solid example is Kings’ Peak, one of the cheeses from Snowy Mountain Sheep Creamery in Eden, Utah. The dairy is well known for it exceptional standards of cleanliness that minimize to the least extent any need for antibiotics. Appropriate for an authentic cheese-making farm, the milk designated for cheese production is fed directly into an enclosed system, further emphasizing the attention to scrupulous sanitary conditions.
A smear rind cheese, Kings’ Peak ($23.99/pound) is a half and half blend of milk from Lacaune sheep and Guernsey cows. Aged for three months, this cheese capitalizes upon all of the key strengths one would find in a traditional Fontina from the Valle d’Aosta region. It’s ideal in its whole pure form or as a great cheese melt.
Snowy Mountain Creamery’s location nearly replicates the unique Alpine climate and topographical conditions but the conditions nevertheless impart a Utah terroir to its cheese that rises well above the impression that it merely imitates its European counterpart.
Another Fontina ($17.99/pound) from the Italian Alpine producer Fromagerie La Haut Val d’Ayas is made from the milk of the region’s breeds of cows including red-brindle, black-brindle, chestnut. Intensely floral, the cheese’s sweetness matures even with a short aging time in the cave, along with its pungent aroma. Opened in 2002, the Italian cooperative works with 65 local farmers and uses more than 2 million liters of milk annually to produce some 18,000 pounds of cheese.
One of the most successful and popular cheeses coming out of the cave is Ossau-Iraty, which is usually aged for an additional one to six months in the cave after it has arrived. This cheese, produced by Onetik and made from sheep’s milk, has phenomenal nutty and caramelized notes that are beautifully expressed after aging. The name refers to two rivers in the French Basque region, which gives the spectacular terroir distinction to these cheeses, including a Tome de Vache Basque.
Onetik selections range in price from the high teens to $25.99 per pound but note that even small quantities of these intensely flavored cheeses go a long way.
Several Basque-origin cheeses have produced notable results from their time in the cave, even as they are temperamental. For those looking to sampling something different from the first-rate Taleggio offered in the store, the goat milk Pau Mathieu($26.99/pound) is a stunner. The oddly intoxicating funky aroma of this washed rind cheese gives way to a richly complex layered profile of sweetness and nutty tasting notes that is versatile at either end of the dinner course sequence.
After several months in the cave, the cheese’s creamy paste grows big in savory taste with a firmer texture. The goats, which feed on the Basque mountain region’s indigenous plants, are raised on the hillsides barely ten to fifteen minutes away from the Mediterranean coast.
One of the best bargains ($13.99/pound) from the cave is a Livradois Raclette that outdoes its lackluster counterparts with fertile, lively tastes not normally expected in this cold winter supper classic. Made from raw milk in Auvergne, this cheese has a sweet creamy texture and flavor that intensifies with nutty and earthy mushroom tones once it’s been aged. The Raclette already has been aged for two to three months once it arrives at the store but an additional month in the Caputo’s cheese cave lifts this cheese significantly from ordinary heights.
However, the cave is not the only focus of Caputo’s rapidly developing cheesemonger program. The staff continues to cultivate its offerings for cheeses that are shipped with extremely meticulous care and which can be offered directly from the case. But, again, the emphasis is on discovering artisanal cheeses that often pleasantly surprise customers who begin to compare those against the more familiar offerings.
A solid example comes in the Fleur du Maquis ($30/pound), a marvelous representation of the interplay of French terroir and Italian influences. The cheese, which takes its name from the thick bush cover that made it easy for thieves and robbers to hide, comes from ewe’s milk that is cured with rosemary, juniper, and fennel along with a subtly handled hint of tiny chiles.
This cheese stands nicely up to Spanish white wines, Rieslings, and a good range of light to medium red wines. Versatile in every respect, the cheese not only imparts a deeply satisfying spreadable creaminess but it also offers up crumbling bits that work well in many southern European dishes.
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