Few foods can seem as “last chance” as a piece of moldy cheese. While some of us contemplate the age-old question of whether to cut off the fuzzy bits and eat the rest, Brian Ralph is carefully cultivating mold at Murray’s Cheese Shop in Greenwich Village. He’s the cave master at the store and oversees the ripening of various cheeses in Murray’s five cheese caves.
Ralph currently works in consultation with Dr. Benjamin Wolfe, a microbiologist researching mold at Harvard University. He calls Wolfe up with questions about how to cultivate and maintain various cheese molds, each of which serves an important purpose.
“Depending on the species or subspecies of that mold, it’ll create different flavor profiles,” Ralph explained. “Like this one tastes grassy or this one tastes yeasty. But does it taste like beer yeast or champagne yeast?”
This week’s Last Chance Foods segment took place in Murray’s cheese cave number four. It’s a vaulted, air-conditioned room, permeated with a strong, sharp smell. Wooden and metal shelves lined the walls and were filled with neat rows of domestic and imported natural-rind cheeses.
“We’re putting [cheeses] in here so they can breathe,” Ralph said. “And what you’re smelling is the cheeses breathing and they’re letting off ammonia, they’re letting off other by products as they’re ripening the cheeses. Essentially, we’re letting them express themselves so that it doesn’t go back into the cheese and create off flavors.”
Located in the basement of Murray’s, cheese cave number four is the most nose-tingling and pungent. Walking inside, Wolfe admitted he loves the smell.
“These are molds that we’ve grown on cheese, we’ve grown to make miso, we’ve grown to make a lot of different products over thousands of years,” he said. “We’ve essentially domesticated these molds.” Wolfe works with Dr. Rachel Dutton at Harvard’s FAS Center for Systems Biology in educating food makers and other scientists about helpful, harmless molds.
In particular, Ralph works with Wolfe on sporendonema casei, a bright orange mold specific to Hudson Flower, the cave master’s signature cheese. On a recent visit from Cambridge, Mass., Wolfe brought petri dishes of lab-grown mold to use as comparison against what was growing on Murray’s cheese.
“We like to think of [the cheese cave] as a frat house or something where you get like all these different people coming and expressing themselves in different ways,” Ralph said with a chuckle. “And we kind of treat it like a day spa where we come in, we pat them, we flip them over. If there’s cheese mites, we brush them off or suck them up with vacuum and make sure they’re not burrowing too far into the product itself.”
That’s right: some varieties of cheese host microscopic mites that are invisible to the human eye. Ralph can tell they’re present by the dust the mites create on and around the cheeses.
There’s no cause to be alarmed by the tiny creatures, though, says Wolfe.
“I like to think of cheese mites as the gophers of cheese rinds or the groundhogs of cheese rinds,” he explained. “So they’re running around this moldy landscape, which could be like a lawn, and they’re eating the grass, but in this case the grass is mold. So they’re munching on various parts of the rind.”
Wolfe pointed to a brown spot visible under a portable microscope. It was a mold called scopulariopsis. “We think of scopulariopsis as the cheese mite bar,” he said. “They love this particular mold. It’s one of the most delicious molds for them. So anytime you have scopulariopsis on a cheese like this, you have a mite party.”
Wolfe was careful to add that, like mold, the mites were simply a natural part of the cheese’s ecosystem. “They’re not doing anything bad, necessarily, to the cheese unless they go out of control,” he said. “So that’s where Brian comes in and makes sure their numbers don’t go too crazy high.”
Photo: Brian Ralph, Amy Eddings, and Benjamin Wolfe outside a cheese cave at Murray's Cheese Shop/Jennifer Hsu (WNYC)