First things first: it’s not a cave.
Cheesemongers universally refer to their cheese storage rooms as caves but these rooms have about as much in common with a cave as astroturf has in common with the field of dreams. Cheese caves are commercial coolers. Usually walk-ins, which is industry speak for a refrigerator big enough for a full-sized door.
Our cave is ten feet wide, twenty feet long, about the size of a short container truck. It is stark white and sits right in the middle of our warehouse, across the pick line from the bread bagging tent. Between the two they mark the two poles of our operations. Bread and cheese. Both made by hand. Cut by hand. Wrapped by hand. Traditional, practically ancient foods.
We work mostly in whole wheels of cheese.
That’s the way the cheesemakers make them and that’s the way we buy them. We haul them into the cheese cave and cut them open by hand. Sometimes with a big knife. Sometimes with a cheese wire: a thick steel cable with handles that the cheesemonger uses to glide through cheese like butter.
And sometimes you’ve got to tackle Parmigiano Reggiano. Those 80 pound wheels have a hide as tough as a stegosaurus. They need to be coaxed open with a set of wedge shaped knifes that become part of every cheesemonger’s rite of passage. A freshly cracked wheel’s aroma is beguiling. Every one who splits one stops for a moment, puts their face up to the cut surface, and inhales. Fresh shards of parmesan always flake off too – cheesemonger’s treat.
Once a wheel is open we cut pieces of cheese and hand wrap them in waxed cheese bags.
If we cut a piece that weighs exactly the right size on the scale we ring the bell – perfect cut! We send the just-cut cheese out to be packed in boxes, then wait for the container to empty and return to let us know we need to cut a few more. We do this all day long for the 50+ cheeses we carry. On our busiest day in December we’ll do it thousands of times.
That means your cheese is essentially cut to order.
It spends a few hours at most from when it’s cut to when it’s packed to ship. It sounds simple – and it is. But it’s also rare. Most companies that ship cheese these days don’t cut cheese to order. They ship cheese that has been cut long ago – weeks, even months – and sealed in cry-o-vac. It’s not terrible, but remember that once a cheese gets cut it never gets better. It fades. Cry-o-vac slows the fading, but if it spends a long time cut in a wrapper its flavor will become a shadow of itself.
Freshness matters, even when you’re talking about aged cheese.
The primary culprit for flavor loss is air. Air surrounded the wheel of the cheese, of course, but it didn’t penetrate the paste inside thanks to the rind. Now the cheese, with its insides showing, is under siege by air. Air swoops in to dry out the cheese, carrying the environment’s off-aromas and unwanted bacteria along the way.
To protect the cheese’s cut face from air’s ravages we wrap each cheese in a waxed cheese bag. This bag lets the cheese breathe yet keeps it from drying out. The wax lining keeps them in perfect shape. It lasts, too – reuse it for other cheese, it’ll keep almost any hard cheese in great condition.