I've always loved cheese, but I didn’t become passionate about it until I became a customer at Murray’s myself back in 1989. If I think back to my earliest cheese memories, they are not about eating the perfect Piave in Italy. They are about growing up eating cheeseburgers and grilled cheese sandwiches in Highland Park, New Jersey, and about Mom cooking Dad those big, puffy, brown cheese omelets on a Sunday with Swiss or Cheddar.
Almost everybody loves cheese and has some favorites. The magic is that you can go on discovering cheese almost forever; there are thousands of different cheeses from all over the world. The most amazing thing about them all is that the three main ingredients remain the same—milk, rennet, and salt—and yet the tastes, textures, and appearance are infinite in their variety. It's amazing, too, that cheese has been made the same way continuously for thousands of years.
I don’t think my love of cheese is distinguishable from the idea of buying something uniquely delicious and perfectly ripened from an old shop in an old neighborhood, and that’s the experience I want all my customers to have in the new Murray’s.
When I first became a customer at the old Murray’s, one of the things I liked best about it, and still do, is that it is the oldest cheese shop in New York. As I write this, in October 2005, Murray’s is celebrating its sixty–fifth anniversary. It may have moved three times, but it's traveled only twenty-five feet from the original shop in all that time.
I never met the original owner, Murray Greenberg; he died before I got here. He was an Eastern European Spanish Civil War veteran, and when he came to America in 1940 he opened a wholesale butter and egg shop a few doors up Cornelia Street. Despite his communist leanings, I've been told he was a street–smart capitalist who used to buy cheese cheap, trim it up, and sell it.
In the 1970s, he finally sold the shop to his clerk, Louis Tudda, an Italian immigrant from Calabria, who filled the shop not just with cheese but also with cheap olive oil and tomatoes, which he sold mostly to his local Italian neighbors. That’s the way it was when I bought the shop fifteen years ago in 1991. So what made me buy it and give up everything for cheese? I had left the family supermarket business in 1985 to work in full-service specialty shops in New Jersey, where I was from. When my second shop in Princeton tanked with the crash of ’87, I found myself in my brother’s place here in the Village, wondering what I should do with my life next.
One day I was standing in line at the original Murray’s, and I heard Louis say he’d lost his lease and was closing. I made him several offers he refused, but eventually made a deal. I moved the shop to the corner of Bleecker, and that’s where it remained for fourteen years, until November 2004.
Frankie Meilak, who had worked for Louis for six years, came with the shop. He is still here with me. He lived up the street and stayed on when his parents moved back home to Malta. Louis stayed on for a year before he went back home.
One day around ten years ago, Cielo Peralta walked into the shop and announced he was coming to work for me. I told him I didn’t have a job for him. He took absolutely no notice, strode right past me straight into the shop, put on an apron, and started selling cheese, saying I didn’t have to pay him unless I liked his work. I only had to see Cielo behind the counter for a day to know he’d sell twelve times more cheese than anyone else. In fact, he’s probably sold more specialty cheese than anyone else in the United States. He’s still here, too.
When I arrived at Murray’s we were selling around 100 different cheeses. We’ve gone from 100 to 250 on the counter at any one time, but with our seasonal calendar and promotions, our range is probably somewhere around 500 to 600 cheeses.
We started broadening our selection in the early nineties, a time of explosive interest in U.S. and foreign artisanal food. Our original American purveyors (pioneer women) had started making cheese—like Mary Keehn’s Humboldt Fog and Cindy Major’s Vermont Shepherd—in the seventies and eighties. There were cheeses from places with no tradition of cheesemaking, or where the tradition had been nearly lost and where it began anew. I got involved in American farmstead cheeses first through the American Cheese Society, whose headquarters in those days were around the corner from the shop on Downing Street.
I think the first real specialty cheese we got from abroad came from Neal’s Yard Dairy in England in the early 1990s. After that, I went to Spain, Italy, France, Ireland, and England searching out small dairies and new cheeses, but I still thought the growing popularity and appetite for cheese was probably a fad; I didn’t know it was going to turn into a lasting trend.
My father thought buying Murray’s was a really stupid idea. We were at the peak of the low–fat, cholesterol–obsessed days, and there was clearly no expectation from him, as an experienced grocer, or from me, that cheese was going to become the Next Big Thing. It’s only in the last couple of years that artisanal cheese has penetrated the consciousness of a broader market in the U.S.
In the beginning, I got into cheese because I wanted a nice little old–fashioned business like the one in the picture hanging over my dairy case. It shows my grandfather's shop in Perth Amboy, New Jersey, in 1925. My grandfather Irving with his wife, Fanny, and his brother Murray with his wife, Bessie, and their two small children, are all sitting on the stoop in front. Buying Murray's was a romantic notion. There had always been a line when I went there as a customer, so I thought it was conceivable that I could lead a Greenwich Village life, pay the rent and buy groceries, and take my place in that long family tradition. I also liked the fact we’re on Bleecker Street, because I grew up listening to Bob Dylan and Dave Van Ronk. Van Ronk turned out to be a Murray’s customer and gave me guitar lessons before he died.
I like the idea of being a small business and of buying from small businesses. The cheesemakers I deal with love what they're doing, are passionate about making cheese, and are peculiar, quirky oddballs, like I am. I also don’t have to wear a suit and tie!
I love the creative aspect of merchandising food. I believe coming to Murray's should be an entertaining experience; it’s fun, it’s funky, it’s exciting. My favorite food-buying experiences have been in the markets in European villages and towns, where everything is simple and direct. The food is abundantly on display, and you often buy from the producer directly. The transaction has a theatrical element to it: The sellers are onstage and you, the customer, are the audience.
One of the things I always liked best about Murray's was that the people behind the counter would explain cheese to the customers without making them feel like they were idiots. The truth is, if we educate the customers, suggest new things, tempt them with ever more delicious cheeses, and let them taste things over the counter, they'll enjoy cheese even more and buy more of it. That may be one of the oldest traditions in retail, but it's the one that's nearly been killed in our chain-store age.
So I wrote this book to tell you all about cheese, to pass on my passion.
Here are my favorite three hundred or so cheeses out of the thousands I've tasted. I hope you will sit down with a glass of wine, a hunk of good cheese, and this book, and savor all three. This guide is designed so you can easily consult it, dipping into various sections for useful and practical information. And when you’re in the neighborhood, stop by Murray’s and let us look after you. Cheese is my job and my passion, and what more can I say about my work than that, fifteen years later, I still can't wait to taste another new cheese.
HOW TO USE THIS HANDBOOK
Each cheese is followed by a quick and simple overview of its key characteristics: milk type, country of origin, raw versus pasteurized, type, vegetarian, and controlled designation of origin.
First off, we'll tell you if a cheese is:
Mixed (and which blend)
Most commonly seen are cheeses made from goat’s, cow’s, and sheep’s milk. Some cheeses are made from water buffalo milk. Others are a mixture of two or more milk types. The type of milk affects the flavor, texture, and character of a cheese. It’s difficult to make generalizations, but we comfortably claim the following.
Goat’s milk has less fat and tends to taste lighter and fresher. Also, it’s often made into lightly aged styles that have a fresh, tangy taste.
Cows make the most milk, and you’ll see the greatest variety of type, texture, and flavor in cow’s–milk cheeses. They account for the majority of cheese (just check out the index by milk type).
Sheep have the fattiest milk, which translates into rich, hearty cheese, even if it's aged and drier in texture. You feel the fat.
Buffalo, goat, and sheep milk are most likely to have “barny” or “gamy” flavors, like rare meat.
COUNTRY OF ORIGIN
Maybe you’re a Francophile, or planning to visit the Basque country. Perhaps you have a passion for all things Italian, or you’ve got a recipe that calls for something Swiss. Knowing where a cheese originates may not guarantee a specific eating experience, but it’s always a good idea to have that information.
Specific types of cheese are often typical of certain regions. That’s no surprise if you consider that the climate and types of animals raised are consistent within a given area. Our descriptions will always point you to the region of production.
RAW VERSUS PASTEURIZED
Cheese may be made from milk that is either raw or pasteurized; some cheeses are available in both raw and pasteurized versions. Things to note:
• In the United States, all cheese that is less than sixty days old must, by law, be made from pasteurized milk. This is true for both imported and domestically produced cheese. Under sixty days = pasteurized.
• In the United States, doctors typically recommend that pregnant women avoid raw milk cheese, though this is not necessarily the case in Europe.
• We find that pasteurization often results in a cheese that has less flavor and a gummier texture. That said, many pasteurized cheeses, such as Stilton, have superb flavor.
• For more on raw milk and pasteurization (and what we really think), see Frequently Asked Questions.
Different books break down cheeses into various types, styles, or families. We have divided our handbook into seven types that we find clear and simple to understand:
• Washed Rind
These types are about more than texture or cheesemaking approach. They're about a group of cheeses that provide a consistent eating experience. We’re guessing the technical stuff is secondary to your interest in finding a cheese you like. Our types will help you do that.
Think: Young. Tart. Tangy. Lemony. Smooth. Moist. Creamy. No rind.
Find: Fresh goat cheese (chevre), mozzarella
Refers to the snowy, fluffy, “blooming” rind.
Think: White. Buttery. Decadent. Pillowy. Fluffy. Rich. Mild to mushroomy. Edible rind.
Find: Brie, Camembert, triple–cremes (Brillat Savarin, Cremeux de Bourgogne)
These are washed during aging in brine (salt water), beer, wine, or spirits.
Think: Pungent. Stinky. Fruity. Meaty. Intense. Aromatic. Vibrant pink to orange edible rind.
Find: Epoisses de Bourgogne, Livarot, Pont-l'Eveque, Taleggio
Think: Pliable. Earthy. Wet straw. Hay. Leaves. Melting.
Find: Fontina, Garrotxa, Morbier, Tomme de Savoie
Think: Dense but supple. Grassy. Eggy. Fruited. Sharp. Thick, natural rind not typically eaten.
Find: Cheddar, Gruyere, Manchego, Ossau-Iraty-Brebis Pyrenees
Think: The super-aged big guns. Dry. Crunchy. Caramelly. Butterscotchy. Grainy.
Find: Aged Gouda, Dry Jack, Parmigiano-Reggiano
Think: Mold! Veins. Craters. Big. Sharp-edged. Punchy. Complex.
Find: Gorgonzola, Roquefort, Stilton
A cheese may be considered vegetarian if, during cheesemaking, curds were coagulated with a non–animal substance. To our knowledge, this is the first resource to identify the cheeses of the world by coagulant.
For more on this distinction, see Frequently Asked Questions.
CONTROLLED DESIGNATION OF ORIGIN
Various European countries bestow the honor “controlled designation of origin” on foodstuffs of the highest quality, often produced using traditional methods, and usually reflecting a unique environment that promotes distinctive flavor characteristics. In France, this protection is the A.O.C. (Appellation d’Origine Controlee). In Italy, it is the D.O.P. (Denominazione di Origine Protetta). For Portugal, it’s D.O.P. (Denominacao de Origem Protegida). In Spain, the term is D.O. (Denominacion de Origen).
Knowing that a cheese has a controlled designation of origin won’t necessarily tell you what it will taste like, but it guarantees the following:
Origin: The milk is produced and the cheese is made in a precise geographical area (e.g., the town of Meaux).
Tradition: Traditional cheesemaking methods (such as burying a cheese in the ground or producing only during certain months) may go back thousands of years and produce the unique “recipe” for that cheese.
Character: The typical characteristics of each cheese, such as shape, size, rind, texture, and minimum fat content, may be regulated.
Authenticity: The governing country guarantees authenticity and quality: Producers submit to approval by a commission.
American cheesemaking has no equivalent control at this time. Domestic farmstead cheeses are produced by single farms, rather than co–ops or groups, which means identification of the producer is essential. Thus, in this guide, all American cheeses are listed first by producer and second by cheese name.
Some of the most famous cheeses in the world do not benefit from “controlled designation of origin” protection. This, unfortunately, is why a divine raw cow’s–milk wheel from a single farm in Somerset, England, and a plastic-wrapped slice of industrial “cheese food” from origins unknown may both be deemed “Cheddar.”
We won't swear that every “controlled designation of origin” cheese will be good, but it does promote consistency, because all cheeses with the same name must subscribe to the same regulations. It also suggests that you'll be eating a unique piece of a country’s culture, history, and tradition.