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Formaggio Kitchen offers a crash course in cheese

Posted by Alex Pearlman  March 14, 2012 06:12 PM

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Formaggio Kitchen cheese cave storage Melissa Pocek.JPGBy Marissa Lowman

Although cheese is one of my favorite foods, I always find myself a little overwhelmed by the creamy wedges on display at my local grocery store. While it’s easy to get distracted by the Goudas and the Gruyeres, I usually end up with the same two standbys in my cart: cheddar and Parmesan. But buying cheese can actually be quite fun, especially when tasting is part of the process.

Ihsan Gurdal, who is originally from Turkey, founded Formaggio Kitchen, a local gourmet foods store known for its cheese selection, in 1978 in Cambridge. The shop's longevity and success has since led to two more locations -- a South End store run by Gurdal’s wife Valerie, as well as one in Lower Manhattan. Formaggio Kitchen has a reputation for selling rare, high-quality cheeses, but they also carry a variety of other gourmet foods, which might even inspire you to enroll in one of their classes -- everything from cheese making to baking with Flour owner Joanne Chang.

The coolest thing about Formaggio Kitchen, however, has got to be their cheese cave, which was built in 1996 and is located in the basement of the Cambridge store, in Gurdal's former office. Last spring, I was lucky enough to win a tour, which I recently redeemed. Prior to winning the tour, I had no idea cheese caves even existed, much less all the work that goes into maintaining one.

Each spring, Gurdal and several staff members travel to France and Spain to pick out 2-3 thousand kilos of cheese -- their inventory for the year. They meet with local farmers and shepherds, some of whom are paid via a barter system instead of cash. “It’s been a very interesting process," said Gurdal, who has learned to pick cheeses through trial and error. "You have to feel a connection to the people and like the taste of the cheese -- there are so many factors," including customs, which sometimes impedes what cheeses Gurdal and his staff are able to bring back. “Many people have amazing stuff, but we don’t have the chance to bring it in," he said.

Shortly after my three friends and I arrived at the cheese cave, Gurdal took us to the basement and offered us wellies to cover our shoes. The floors are wet because the cheese cave is supposed to mimic the environment of a mountain cave; there is 97 percent moisture in the room, and the cave is kept between 44 and 52 degrees Fahrenheit year-round. Gurdal and his staff periodically brush the cheese with white wine -- a practice begun by monks, Gurdal told us -- to help it stay moist.

Formaggio Kitchen cheese cave tour Melissa Pocek.JPGGurdal led us down a narrow hallway lined with shelves of cheese, to a door marked “cave," and we entered a tiny room (it barely fit five people) with a low ceiling and shelves lined with cheese wheels the size of tires. Some shepherds bathe their cheese in salt brine to add more flavor, Gurdal said. The shepherds use dowels to stamp a unique mark into their cheese, and the wheels also feature numbers that signify the day they were made, which allows buyers to determine how much longer the cheese needs to age before they can sell it.

Periodically, Gurdal and his staff taste the cheese wheels by inserting a long, narrow tube called a cheese corer and removing a sliver of the cheese. After breaking off a few tiny pieces to taste, they insert the remainder of the sliver back into the wheel and plug the hole with some of the cheese. The plug reminds staff that someone has already tasted the cheese and that it needs more time to ripen; cheese actually ripens from the outside in.

Formaggio Kitchen cheese cave tasting Melissa Pocek.jpgBefore you purchase cheese, Gurdal, whose favorite cheese is goat cheese, recommends tasting. “Tell people what you like, what vintages and what milk," he said. "Then you have to taste it. Never buy without tasting." After tasting cheese, you will learn, for example, that mountain cheese tends to be fruitier than Gruyere. We tried several varieties of cheese, mostly from the Pyrenees, such as Comte and Ardi Gasna (the Basque phrase for sheep cheese). While I’m certainly not an expert yet, tasting cheeses in order from smoothest to nuttiest flavor helped distinguish them from one another.

To store cheese, Gurdal said, wrap it in cheese paper and place it either in a drawer or the refrigerator. When you're ready to eat the cheese, it's best to scrape off the top layer first so that you can taste the true flavor.

If you’d like to visit Formaggio Kitchen’s cheese cave, call the Cambridge store and make an appointment; you can also stop by with a small group, but you may have to come back if the store is too busy. They also offer public classes and tastings, as well as private events.

Photos by Melissa Pocek

About Marissa -- Marissa is the founder of EdTechup, an organization that brings together education technology entrepreneurs and educators. She currently works at AisleBuyer, a mobile commerce startup. Her writing has appeared in Time Out Boston and BostInnovation, among other publications.

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