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Review: Cheese Grotto

Walk up to the cheese counter at DeLaurenti Food & Wine in Seattle and you’ll find offerings from the worldwide luminaries of cheese: l’Amuse from Holland, Guffanti from Italy, Neal’s Yard Dairy from the United Kingdom, and Hervé Mons from France, all there in cold cases, like jewels in a museum. It’s awe-inspiring. Leave the store with a few of those beauties, which average more than $ 30 a pound, and you’ll want to cosset them until it’s time for the cheese course, then display them like works of art.

I arrived at the store with a glass and bamboo box designed to extend the life of these fine cheeses by creating the perfect storage conditions. Riding the train, I could feel people glancing at it, perhaps wondering if I was carrying a hamster. In DeLaurenti’s, however, the box was received like the cheese world’s equivalent of an unreleased iPhone.

This box, called Cheese Grotto is the brainchild of Brooklyn cheesemonger Jessica Sennett, who calls it a “humidor for cheese.” Barely bigger than a breadbox, it features two shelves to store and display cheese, a terra cotta brick you can soak with water to maintain the humidity for up to a week, a tiny vaulted ceiling to keep condensation from dripping onto the cheese, and a sliding back wall to control airflow. With a $ 350 price tag, think of it as a luxury apartment for dairy.

DeLaurenti’s co-owner Matt Snyder and I conceived a test: We wrapped a piece of three different cheeses in deli wrap, creating a control group, and put them in a high-traffic fridge for a week. We then placed a piece of each of those cheeses in the Grotto and left the whole shebang in DeLaurenti’s 63-degree cellar, following Grotto guidelines that allowed for storage between regular fridge temperature and “certain aged styles of cheese at room temperature, below 70 degrees Fahrenheit.”

output_C5Uz2f.gifCheese Grotto

I returned to DeLaurenti’s exactly one week later expecting to find cheeses preserved beautifully, perhaps even maturing, but Snyder looked like he’d seen a car crash. He brought the Grotto up from the basement, and it became clear that our experiment had gone sideways. While all three deli-wrapped cheeses looked luscious and inviting, we opened the Grotto to find desiccated cheeses covered with at least two kinds of undesirable mold. While well-aged cheeses can acquire desirably funky aromas (“barnyardy” is a favorite), that was not the case with the contents of the Grotto. Mold on cheese can be wiped away with a damp cloth or trimmed with a knife, but these cheeses were way beyond that point. Snyder donned gloves just to peel them off the shelves and drop them into the trash.

“It smells like a sauna with a bunch of old dudes in it,” he said.

A Second Chance

I was determined to try again, but realized that round one made a great argument for good old deli wrap and a fridge. If you’re buying cheese good enough to stick in a $ 350 box, you’re likely buying it from somebody like Snyder, who has nurtured his cheese to perfection under ideal conditions. I sent an email to the owners of Guffanti, Neal’s Yard, L’Amuse, and to Snyder, asking if any of their customers bought cheese to store it. They all said the vast majority buy their cheeses to eat immediately, or within a few days.

Who, then, were the Grotto’s customers? People who live far away and need to store their cheese for a long time? Do they have an ideal cellar temperature between 45 and 60 degrees Fahrenheit, which the booklet says “most accurately replicates the environment of a cheese cave”? The only people I could think of with consistent access to cellar temperatures like that are winemakers and … cheesemakers.

Still, I wanted to give the Grotto the benefit of the doubt. So a week later, I returned to DeLaurenti to check on the second round of cheeses: a Brie-like Fougerus, an Italian Casatica de Bufala, and a Glacier Blue from Washington’s Cascadia Creamery. After the disappointment of round one, Snyder and I decided to go for a straight head-to-head: deli-paper wrapped versus the Grotto, side-by-side in the walk-in fridge.

The short of it? Deli paper worked just fine. Everything looked almost exactly as it did when Snyder wrapped it a week before, all three cheeses still perfect. The cheeses in the Grotto looked lovely, too, though the Italian had cratered a bit, leaving the center lower than the edges.

The Grotto had worked its humidity magic, as the cheese sat in it for a week, unwrapped. Left like that in the fridge, it would have gone all puckery and dried out. Here, the softer Italian and French cheeses developed the slightest bit of undesirable tackiness where the cut surface was exposed to the air in the Grotto. But the deli-wrapped cheeses came out looking just as good.

If you have $ 350 to spend on cheese paraphernalia, the Cheese Grotto makes a stunning display case, but it’s hard to make a compelling case for it as a superior storage vessel. And as far as preserving your precious cheeses, deli wrap works just as well.

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