In his praise of cheese, American writer Clifton Fadiman proclaimed, "Cheese is milk's leap toward immortality." Legend has it, more than 4,000 years ago, man discovered milk mixed with a bit of fig or thistle flowers or left in a vessel made from a sheep's stomach containing rennet fermented into what we now call cheese. It was probably more akin to cottage cheese or feta, but it was a miracle of fermentation that would one day be cherished when paired with the fermented products of grapes and grains. Cheese, wine and bread - a transcendental combination of flavors and textures with roots in antiquity.
The exact origins of cheese are unknown, and I could find no "inventors" of it, but I applaud their foresight. The enduring place cheese has found in cultures throughout the globe proves Fadiman was spot on. Since Murray Greenberg opened his Greenwich Village butter and egg shop in 1940, Murray's Cheese has been doing its share to insure the immortality of fermented milk in America, first in New York City and now throughout the country. In 1990, Rob Kaufelt purchased Murray's and set off to transform it into a cheese and charcuterie emporium. Now, through a partnership with Kroger's, Murray's has brought the wide world of cheese to Avon City Market.
In 2008, Kroger and Murray's entered into an agreement to embed Murray's Cheese Shops in Kroger stores. To date, there are 12 Murray's kiosks in Colorado stores. With more than 110 different cheeses from nine families, these kiosks are, in essence, cheese supermarkets. Spending a day in Avon City Market's kiosk surrounded by an abundance of cheese alongside well-trained staff seemed the perfect opportunity for a behind-the-scenes experience.
Cheese Master Jessica Tzitzicas and Leesa Rodriguez were excellent "cheese mentors," displaying a keen knowledge about the product they so proudly sell. I felt as though they personified the cheese, bringing it to life. Murray's passion for cheese excellence is manifested in staff education, requiring employees to taste three cheeses each day. This was my favorite part of my experience, although it lacked the pleasure of a wine pairing. This daily education provides staff firsthand knowledge that's helpful when guiding customers through the somewhat daunting choices before them. The Murray's tasting log journal gives a broad array of tasting parameters for staff members to consider when tasting: milk type, family, appearance/texture and 38 different flavors and aromas, such as gamy, assertive, woodsy and, my personal favorite, stinky.
Each day begins with a "cheese walk." For nearly two hours, Tzitzicas and I handled each piece of cheese, checking for expiration dates and wrapping integrity. Do the math. There are 110 types of cheese, each displayed with a minimum of four cut pieces, sometimes 10 to 20. On the low end 800, but probably more than 1,000 pieces are checked each morning. It's back-breaking and hand-chilling work that's required to insure product freshness and to comply with onerous regulations that shorten shelf life and result in tragic wastefulness. But I'll leave that diatribe for a later column.
Some experts believe the increase of lactose intolerance in America is due to pasteurization of milk, a process that removes enzymes and decreases vitamin content. For many, goat- and sheep-milk products offer an alternative source of dairy. A stroll through the Murray's display is reassurance that being lactose intolerant in Avon doesn't necessarily mean living a cheese-free life. There are a number of intriguing options made from goat and sheep's milk. Of the eight different goudas, one is a delicious, flavorful goat gouda Tzitzicas refers to as the "gateway to gouda." Goat Brie is a perfect alternative to cow's milk bloomy rind cheeses. Two different Manchego cheeses - young and one-year aged - will delight lovers of this Spanish sheep's milk cheese. Great choices, not compromises.
In the two long cases, cheese is arranged according to families, such as blue, bloomy, named for the flower-like blooms seen on the rind under a microscope, melting, cheddar, flavored, gouda, grate/crumble, washed rind and specialty. As much as I love cheese and enjoy it most evenings after dinner, it would still take me close to a year to go through them all. But I'll try.
In addition to these families, there are some excellent offerings of mozzarella, ricotta, creme fraiche, marscapone and other goodies. I have to admit that while I'm a ricotta purist, the Calabro whole-milk ricotta is a great go-to brand. It's a far cry from the rubbery, factory-produced curds that sadly go by the name "ricotta."
If you like your cheese on crackers, the Murray's kiosk has a great assortment to suit any palate. There is also an array of honeys and marmalades to embellish your savory cheese with a sweet taste. To round out your antipasti platter, there are many choices from the well-stocked olive bar and a nice selection of salami, including the delicious Creminelli brand.
A word on the olive bar. I know you're dying to taste the olives before you commit to a purchase. But please, don't reach in and grab one or even take one off the ladle. The five-second rule doesn't apply here, and it's been debunked anyway. Tasting cups are available for sampling. Keep in mind that our overzealous bureaucrats require the entire crock - and they are big - to be tossed if a precocious child or a curious adult reaches in for a taste.
The olives are not the only items available for sampling. See a cheese that intrigues you, but you balk about the price for an unknown taste? Ask for a sample. See a cheese that you'd love to buy, but the piece is too big or, perhaps, too small? Ask for an amount to suit your needs, and the staff will gladly cut it for you. Tzitzicas said their job is 1 percent cheese and 99 percent customer service. Now having been on both the giving and receiving end of their customer-service philosophy, I can attest to their success in insuring customers go home happy. They'll come back if they are.
Working at my research targets enables me to get the full experience and see things I might not normally pick up in an interview. Case in point - cheese signs. Between the knowledgeable, friendly staff and the informative signs on each cheese, customers can get a plethora of information on their cheese purchases. But I noticed signs disappeared as the day passed. Apparently, this isn't unusual. Sad because the cost involved in replacing the stands is not small and they are happy to make up a sign for you. Just ask.
After nearly seven hours of cutting, wrapping and weighing cheese and helping customers choose that perfect fermented delicacy, I was ready to call it a day - but not before choosing some goodies to take home for my own little wine and cheese dinner. A little goat gouda, wedge of Brie de Nangis and a hunk of Piemontese Robiola Bosina were the perfect companions for a bottle of Ca' del Baio Barbaresco Pora waiting for me at home. Il formaggio paradiso!
Suzanne Hoffman is a local attorney, wine importer and the Chambellan Provincial of the Southwest Region and Bailli (president) of the Vail chapter of the Chaine des Rotisseurs. She is passionate about all things gastronomique. For more background information on her "Behind the Scenes" series, go to www.facebook.com/vailvalleysecrets. Email comments about this story to firstname.lastname@example.org.