Tuesday, February 26, 2008

What I Wouldn't Do For Cheese...

I just returned from my three-day "cheese immersion" class in NYC. The trip was appropriately bookended with various tribulations, which only served to highlight the headshakingly fabulous experience that was MURRAY'S CHEESE "U" BOOTCAMP! I had to overcome two canceled flights, a much delayed train ride, a manic depressive taxi driver and a broken toe, but it was all worth it. Besides, I had plenty of time to add to the "overheard in New York" website.

Got to Murray's Friday night. Met the crew and fellow classmates, power-tasted some cheese (dinner): St. Nectaire, Quicke's Cheddar, Pyrenees Brebis, Comte, Roomano [sic], Gorgonzola Cremificato & Roquefort. Washed it all down with Prosecco and Merlot. Finally I walked back to Waverly and smuggled a glass of Bas Armagnac out of the hotel bar and into my room, hunkering down with my 800 page study guide...and promptly fell asleep.

I would love to take a minute and wax rhapsodic about NYC, the Village, Murray's, etc., but there's cheese waiting. Suffice to say the City gives me energy, and Murray's gives me inspiration. The old shop was the size that RCC is now. You came in, you turned sideways to pass those before you, you waited. And it was always worth the wait. Now it's the same, but with the eye-widening addition of a glass-walled classroom looming above the sales floor, and the "oh, I wanna see!" cave-teaser below the sidewalk. So the next morning I was confronted with delicious cheese and daunting chemistry. Being a former English major, I was expecting some high school level "food science" rather than full-on biochemistry. But I dug in because I *like* these teachers! Anyone who can make Proteolysis fun gets my vote--yes, that graphic says "variable matrix for biochemical aspects of cheesemaking and affinage." People, these women (Taylor, Liz & Zoe) made me understand cheese from the inside out! Thanks Ladies! Oh, and we made ricotta in class. Pretty cool. And tasty with honey. So, for the next umpteen hours we discussed chemistry, politics, history, religion, animal husbandry and economics. If I had a to sum up cheese in a term that had nothing to do with gastronomy, I would say, "Resource Management." Breakfast? Vermont Butter and Cheese Crottin, Jasper Hill Farms Ayreshire, Jasper Hill Farms Winnemere, Pecorino Ginepro, Hoch Ybrig.

Then we took a break for
lunch. Here I have to comment on the diversity of the Murray's BootCampers: a CPA, a freelance writer, a gourmet educator, a chef, dairy farmers and various aspiring entrepreneurs. All were equally cult-like in their interest in cheese. What a great group to learn alongside! At lunch just six of our 20 peeled off for "August"--a lovely, tiny French (Alsatian?) bistro two blocks down. The kitchen was smaller than mine (10x10) mirrored by a cold station where the cook, if he wasn't careful, would burn his arm hair off in the pizza oven. The beauty of this place was a four-way tie: service, wine lovers' by-the-glass list, decadent brunch menu & atrium. Our group ended up ordering salads (only because we were so full of cheese), and then eventually extra sides of bacon and homemade chorizo because we could. Then back to Murrays for more cheese tasting and (yay!) the cave tours.

Zoe is Murray's affineur (affineuse?) and all-around cave-guru. She inspired me to include a proper affinage facility in our expansion plans. There were separate rooms with various levels of controlled temperature and humidity, designed to develop everything from delicate, bloomy chevres to robust (read: divinely stinky) washed rind cheeses to venerable, aged Manchego and Comte. Here I think pictures are better than words, and they should get you excited about cheese...

Saturday night was spent drinking whiskey (Scotland Yard) and eating enchanting Malaysian food with my new friend Marissa, then closing down Babbo's with ever-flowing Fruilian Amaro and cheese-curious bartenders. We spent Sunday sampling MORE cheese, then had a cheese pairing competition with wine vs. beer. On the docket? Vermont Butter & Cheese Coupole (now in at RCC), Langres, Pecorino Foja de Noce, Extra-Aged Mimolette, Jasper Hill Bayley Hazan Blue, all pitted against Muscadet, Riesling, Torrete, Champagne, Madeira, Montborgeau Chardonnay, followed by Bahnhof Weisse, Kriek Lambic, Ommegang Hennepin, Chocarrubica, and Eggenburg Samichlaus. I'm starting to get embarrassed at my gluttony here but it gets much worse (or better, actually).

Sunday night found me at Blue Ribbon Downing Street Bar with two old Richmond transplants, Alan (formerly of Acacia, now bartender at Blue Ribbon) and the lovely and talented Hilty Hazzard. Somehow over the course of (ouch) six and a half hours we managed to eat and drink, um, nearly everything on the menu. No, really: charcuterie, egg shooters, rillette toasts, smoked trout salad along with 3-up flights of Grower's Champagne, Josef Fries Riesling, "Gang of Four" Morgon, and off-the-beaten track dessert wines. That wasn't enough, so after Hilty was responsible and went home, I hung out with Alan and Sefton, the chef from Blue Ribbon Bakery across the street, who gave me a 2am tour of the underground open flame ovens, which were surrounded by bustling armies of diminutive men lugging giant sacks of flour and peeling loaves from million degree, rock-hewn fire pits. That sight made me want a drink. So we went back across the street for a (small) sample of their special Manhattan made with "home-made" bitters (heaven). When the Scotch came out I headed back to the hotel. After all, one has to draw the line somewhere! Needless to say I had fruit for breakfast and slept the entire way back on the train, no longer a size XS. Long live NYC!!!