OHNY 2007: Murrays Cheese Caves tour

Sunday, October 7th, 2007 | All Things, Eats, Events

Murray’s Cheese has been a Greenwich Village fixture since the original owner, Murray Greenberg opened his wholesale butter and egg shop on Cornelia Street in 1940. The current owner, Rob Kaufelt, took over the shop in 1991 from Louis Tudda, onetime clerk at Murray’s, and moved it to its current location on Bleecker Street in 2004. At that time, the cheese purveyors seized upon the opportunity to take their cheese to the next (or rather: lower) level, by building out custom cheese aging caves beneath the shop.

Murray’s opens their caves to the public during their private cheese cave tours: $800 for up to 8 guests, or in conjunction with one of the shop’s $75 “Mystery of the Caves” classes. Last year, Murray’s participated in openhousenewyork Weekend for the first time, offering small group tours of their famed caves by reservation only. In December 2006, Condé Nast Traveler named the cheese cave tours one of their “Fabulous 50” experiences of a lifetime. Combined with the palpable buzz surrounding OHNY this year, I knew that slots for those tours were going to be even tougher to come by, so the night before the reservation lines officially opened, I vigilantly monitored the OHNY website where the official tour information was to post first. Refresh, refresh, refresh… (Yes, I really do love cheese. And um, no, I really don’t have much of a life.) Groups of 10, over two and half hours on Saturday and Sunday afternoons… that left just 100 slots up for grabs, after all. Within minutes of the reservation information going live, I swooped in to book the slots. And success!

To the 400(!) people on the waitlist, and the throngs who showed up at the shop hoping for a last minute cancellation — better luck next year (October 4 & 5, 2008):

Murrays Cheese

So here we were at Murray’s Cheese, having snagged coveted slots for the very first tour of the day. Taylor Cocalis, Murray’s friendly classroom coordinator, signed us in and outfitted CF, SYB and me in snazzy mesh hairnets. After first directing each of us to step through an anti-bacterial mat — with the look and feel of a soggy bit of astroturf — she opened the doors that would lead us down a short hall into the caves.

I hadn’t really known what to expect. “Cheese caves” evoke images of damp and chilly, rocky coves, stalagmites and stalagtites; originally, such caves were more like cellars. Nowadays, affinage — or the craft of maturing and aging cheeses — is its own precise science. Murray’s caves more closely resemble carefully calibrated refrigerated rooms; in all there are four, each maintained at a specific humidity and temperature level tailored to the types of cheeses stored within. The rooms themselves were designed by Hervé Mons, the leading affineur, or “Meilleur Ouvrier,” of France.

Murrays Cheese

After a brief introduction on proteolysis — the biochemical events that occur in cheese during ripening which are essential for the development of flavor and texture — our guide threw open the first set of doors.

We were almost knocked back by the chilly blast and powerful pungency emitted from those wooden shelves laden with ripening cheese, several spotted and furry, and many tagged for destinations at various restaurants around the city. Taylor urged us inside, and with nose stinging and eyes watering a little, I dove in and began snapping away with the Canon. For you, my friends, so check it out. Taylor, in the meantime, described for us what was involved in caring for the shop’s cheeses: in addition to maintaining an optimal environment for the bacteria and molds to flourish, regular washing and constant flipping and turning distributes the butterfat to improve cheese flavor… while keeping their staff of affinage interns busy.

Murrays Cheese cave

Murrays Cheese cave

Murrays Cheese cave

We toured through the rest of the caves — each progressively warmer and less odorific than the last — until we reached that final room, familiarly-scented and stacked with giant hard-aged wheels and hung with waxen-rinded balls.

Murrays Cheese cave

Inspired by our tour, we spent quite a bit of time (and a not inconsiderable amount of money) at the shop counter upstairs. Mmm… Drunken Goat

Full of cheesy samples, we had time to visit one final OHNY site. On Park Avenue and 38th Street, en route to Grand Central Terminal, we stopped in at Scandinavia House, which we had skipped last year. Inside the sleek Polshek Partnership-designed building, we toured the upper floor galleries and enjoyed the garden on this perfect Autumn Sunday — a low-key close to a very full weekend of open houses.

Scandinavia House

“This is no ordinary city, this city of ours.” This is New York City.

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