There is something sublime about taking a bite into the perfect grilled cheese. But it is an uneasy moment, really – caught between ecstasy and guilt, pure indulgence and pure pleasure, you know you shouldn’t, but you just must….
I have always been a glutton for this simple thrill. At home, I am the judge of the on-going contest between my parents and sister over who makes the best grilled cheese (my sister is currently in the lead). For a family of vegetarians who don’t really like vegetables, bread and cheese is a winning combination. And while I appreciate the gourmet varieties – I bought a grilled cheese cookbook this summer with such suggestions as taleggio and truffles and chèvre and jam – I’m no snob when it comes to the sandwich. I grew up on Kraft singles. Almost every night I sneak down to the Branford College Buttery to enjoy the greasy $1 staple. Toasted just right, crisp and crunchy, never burnt – for me, it has always been about the bread and not the cheese.
That is, until I start frequenting Caseus, New Haven’s fromagerie-cum-bistro on the corner of Whitney and Trumbull. At Caseus, overwhelming globs of yellow goodness emerge from butter-soaked slices of one-inch-thick rye. The cheese has a mind of its own: it bubbles, oozes, almost gushes out of the sandwich, daring to enter your mouth.
Caseus (pronounced kay-see-us) is a mecca for cheese lovers. The restaurant offers cheese favorites including mac-and-cheese and poutine (fancy cheese fries), and the fromagerie hosts a selection of over 100 artisan cheeses, both domestic and imported. The Caseus grilled cheese is made from a unique blend of comté, raclette, emmantaller, provolone, mozzarella, and cheddar. But the secret is this: if anything less than a quarter pound is left in the cheese shop, it gets added to the mix, so the combination is different every time. “You never know what you’ll get from the cheese shop,” says owner and founder Jason Sobocinski with a smile.
In the less than two years since its inception, Caseus has proven to be a blockbuster success. Dubbed by this year’s Fearless Critic New Haven restaurant guide as not “just the city’s best cheese shop” but also its “most exciting new restaurant in a decade,” Caseus is bringing sophisticated, real cheeses to New Haven’s salivating mouths. In a few months, the restaurant will launch the “cheese truck:” a travelling 1994 Dodge 3500 whose back has been converted into a kitchen. The cheese truck – advertised on the Caseus website with the slogan “Not all our wheels are made of cheese” – will be a welcome addition to New Haven’s street food landscape, and its featured item will be the famous grilled cheese.
Through the grilled cheese truck, the bistro, and most importantly, the cheese shop, Caseus is part of a broader national movement to make cheese part of American culture. Not the Kraft singles or what my family has always affectionately called “plastic” cheese, but rather artisan cheese – cheese, as Jason says, “that’s made with human hands.” The shop’s motto and philosophy is simple: every cheese has a story. Caseus wants to share each tale and make consumers a part of it. They are advancing what cheese experts have called the Great Cheese Revolution, one story at a time.
Twig Farm Goat Tomme, Raw Goat’s Milk, West Cornwall, VT
As you open the door to the fromagerie at Caseus, cow bells draped around the inside handle ring. The room is small and cozy, stocked to the brim with handmade goods: Rick’s Picks, Bonnie’s Jams, Effie’s Oat Cakes. But there is no denying that the focus of the shop is the cheese. Wedges, circles, cubes. Wheels the size of tennis balls and bowling balls. Squishy white cheeses, crumbly blue cheeses. The most unique in my eyes is Mimolette. It is bright orange and resembles a cantaloupe.
When I first start going to Caseus, I know next to nothing about fancy cheese, but since I will be studying abroad in France next semester (where gastronomic literacy is a requisite for cultural legitimacy), I am determined to learn fast. Every cheese at Caseus has a sign attached to it with a description, so I start scribbling. There is Olgeshield, and Wildspitz, and Drunken Goat. There is Pradera from Holland: “If you want to wow your guests, give them a taste of this 7-year Gouda. Caramel overtones and salty crunchy pockets make this oh so popular.” And Pata Cabra: “This deliciously savory goat’s milk cheese is hand made in Zaragosa, Spain. Pair with pear and apple mostarda, or with chestnut honey for a memorable cheese course.”
And there is Twig Farm Goat Tomme. Pale yellow with a thick, knobbly-gray and powdery-white natural rind, Goat Tomme is aged about 80 days and made at Michael Lee and Emily Sunderman’s small farm in Vermont, about 10 miles south of Middlebury. At the moment, Goat Tomme is Jason’s favorite cheese. He loves the flavors – earthy but still tangy – so much that during the summer of 2007, not long before opening Caseus, he spent a few months working at Twig Farm to learn how to make the cheese.
Jason first tells me about Goat Tomme in the dimly lit, cellar-like bottom dining room of the restaurant, where we sit at a table after the lunch rush has subsided. Wearing blue jeans and with scruffy hair coming out of his Yankees cap, Jason is not what I had expected of the haute cheese connoisseur. But with the boyish exterior and sarcastic sense of humor is a bursting passion for connecting cheese to things deeply and universally human. “I love food that has history,” Jason says. “With cheese, there is so much tradition behind it. This is stuff we’ve been making for centuries.”
Food has always been important in Jason’s life. His great grandfather, a fisherman from the Amalfi coast, moved to New Haven and opened Cavaliere’s, an Italian specialty shop on Wooster Street. A black and white photograph on the wall in the front dining room at Caseus shows “Great grandpa” Angelo Cavaliere and Jason’s great uncles Emiddio and Silvio standing next to a 750 pound torpedo of Auricchio Provolone. The first thing Jason’s mom Sylvia, who is also the cheese shop manager, asks me when we meet is, “Have you seen the photo upstairs? I guess you could say Jason has cheese in his blood.”
After college, Jason spent four years working for Chestnut Fine Foods on State Street in New Haven, but he wanted to do something more with his love for food. So he enrolled in Boston University’s masters program in gastronomy (the brainchild of Julia Child and Jacques Pepin), where he studied, among other things, how culture and food overlap. While in Boston, Jason worked part time as a cheesemonger at Formaggio Kitchen, what he calls “the best cheese shop in the country.” And that’s when he “fell in love” with selling cheese. He knew right away that he wanted to eventually come back to New Haven and start something similar. Finally, on January 1, 2008, Caseus was born.
Charged with Jason’s enthusiasm for bringing food into academic discourse, I decide to take my cheese education to a new level. I gravitate to the shelves in the fromagerie at Caseus, which includes titles from Grilled Cheese (the very book I bought this summer) to the Atlas of American Artisan Cheese and Eat My World. I check out Max McCalman’s 2002 Cheese: A Connoisseur’s Guide to the World’s Best from Bass Library. I order The Cheese Chronicles online, a new book by Yale graduate Liz Thorpe’00, the VP of Murray’s Cheese Shop in New York.
And I start devouring cheese on a daily basis. After meeting Jason, Twig Farm Goat Tomme is my first purchase.
Vermont Ayr, Raw Cow’s Milk, Crawford Family Farm, Whiting, VT
When Sylvia learns that I am a student at Yale, she immediately opens the display case in the center of the shop and pulls out a small white wheel of Vermont Ayr. She unwraps the plastic in which it is tightly bound, and scrapes the side with a cheese slicer to give me a sample. A Connoisseur’s Guide to the World’s Best has instructed me that there are steps to tasting: Look. Touch. Smell. Then Taste. Embarrassed to perform all the steps in public, I shove the Vermont Ayr in my mouth, more eager to learn its history.
Vermont Ayr was invented by Maria Trumpler, the Director of the Office of LGBT Resources at Yale who teaches the popular class “Women, Food, and Culture.” When Trumpler, who received her Ph.D from Yale in the History of Science, was teaching in Massachusetts and wanted a change from her academic career, she decided to go into cheese-making. She had attended a workshop where she learned to make mozzarella, ricotta, and cheddar in one day, and started practicing in her kitchen in small batches with one to three gallons of fresh milk. When she began working at Vermont’s Crawford Family Farm in 2003, it was essentially the same principles and processes as those in her kitchen, just “ramped up” to a commercial scale.
Before Trumpler arrived, the Crawford siblings realized that their farm would not survive by selling milk alone: what they needed was a “value-added product,” and cheese was their answer. It took Trumpler two years to plan and perfect the production of Vermont Ayr, which is made from the milk of brown and white Ayrshire cows. The cheese – what Trumpler describes as easy to eat but with “enough sophistication” to please a trained palate – is shaped by the nature of the Ayrshire cow milk. While the natural rind captures the earthiness of the Vermont terroir, the inside of the cheese is creamy and sweet, which comes from the tiny globules of butterfat in the milk. “When I was designing Vermont Ayr,” Trumpler tells me, “I kept thinking, ‘let the milk make the cheese it wants to make.’’”
This responsiveness to the milk is one of the essential elements of artisanal cheese. In The Cheese Chronicles, Liz Thorpe defines artisanal cheesemakers by their ability to “accommodate the shifting fluid medium that is milk.” Milk changes with the seasons, over the lactation cycle, depending on what the animal eats. Jason, too, stresses variability. For any given cheese, “every wheel is different,” he says. “Do you really want something that’s always consistent? McDonald’s is consistent. Friday’s is consistent.” Not that Jason a moral opposition to industrial cheeses; in fact, Caseus sells a few. “Some industrial cheese is made with wonderful milk,” Jason says. He cites the Calabro Cheese Corporation of East Haven, which won a gold medal in 2003 from the American Cheese Society for its fior di latte. But then there’s also Velveeta and Kraft.
Though America is known for these consistent, processed, and mass-produced foods, the market for and production of artisan cheese in this country has grown dramatically in the past thirty years. “Call it a movement, call it a revolution, whatever,” says Ken Skovron, the owner of Darien Cheese and Fine Foods in Darien, CT, one of the “original” cheese shops in the country. “Cheese is all the rage today.” A practicing cheesemonger for the past 35 years, Skovron has witnessed firsthand the enormous growth in the cheese industry. He says that when he and his wife Tori first took over the Darien cheese shop 23 years ago, they saw Americans beginning to travel more and more to Europe, where they would discover real cheeses that they wanted to eat back home. It was the era of an increasing appreciation and taste for gourmet cheeses.
But the Cheese Revolution was – and continues to be – two-pronged: the general interest in high-quality, artisan cheeses, and the interest in high-quality, artisan, local cheeses. In the 1980s, a growing number of artisan cheese makers began to crop up in America, and by 1990, 75 existed in the country. Today, Thorpe estimates that there are “somewhere between five hundred and one thousand.” This rise coincides with changing national conversations about sustainability and nutrition, the development of the Slow Food movement and greater social consciousness of the food we eat.
For Jason, the draw to the artisanal is the chance to attach a human face to his products. He has known Trumpler since she started coming into Formaggio Kitchen when they both lived in Boston. For Trumpler, the appeal is both intellectual and physical. Having written her dissertation on 18th century science, she likes that artisan cheese today is made the same way it was in the 18th century. And, in contrast to her academic life of “making ideas,” she loves the feeling of making something tangible. “That’s deeply satisfying,” she says.
Piacentinu Ennese, Sheep’s milk, Enne, Sicily, Italy
The story goes that in 1060, after the Norman invasion of Sicily, there was a Norman conqueror whose wives all suffered from depression. Upon hearing that cheese could improve this mental state, he held a competition, asking all the cheese makers in the land to come up with a “magical cheese” to cure his wives entirely. Piacentinu Ennese was the cheese that won the contest — with its secret ingredient of saffron, an alleged aphrodisiac.
Jason is telling this story – with the caveat that he found it on an Italian website, take it or leave it – on a Tuesday night at a private cheese-tasting birthday party at Caseus. “Who wants to try to pronounce this one?” Jason asks the group in his cheerful and billowy voice.
A young man in a tweed coat and pink shirt is the first to speak up. “Piashentu en-ess.” He butchers it with a fake French accent.
This time a soft voice pronounces each syllable one by one – “pi-a-sen-tine-u en-essay”? It’s the birthday girl, so it’s close enough.
Piacentinu Ennese is the sixth of eight cheeses on the menu, which is ordered from least to most intense in flavor. It is a pecorino (sheep’s milk cheese) in a vibrant yellow, punctuated with pieces of dark saffron. Jason has paired it with Quo Garnache, a “persistent, seductive, and luscious” wine with notes of cranberry and pomegranate.
When I arrive for the tasting, Jason grins and says, “are you ready to work for your place?” Tonight, I am helping serve the alcohol, but for the Quo Garnache, Jason tells me to sit the round out. With the previous wine, I had misjudged the proportions, so the last of the 17 guests only got a few sips. I’m better with the beers – smaller bottles, easier to gauge how much to pour. It’s a good thing Jason likes to pair beer with cheese more often than not. (“With beer, the effervescence cuts through the throat!” he tells the group.)
Jason holds several cheese classes throughout the year that cover everything from cheese and sake to cheese and poetry pairings. The classes usually cost $35 per person, but since I’m “working” tonight, I get the cheese plate for free.
Education is one of the most distinguishing elements of Jason’s vision for Caseus. He chose the name – the Latin root of “cheese” – because of the connotations of an ancient language: “You expect to be learning something every time you walk in the door.” Educating your palate is so important, Jason says, because he truly believes that “if you teach people about artisan goods, they taste better.” His Master’s thesis, an ongoing project, studies scientifically how our sense of taste is affected by learning. In a way, Caseus is a test case for Jason’s studies.
But for me, knowledge about the Piacentinu Enesse doesn’t seem to affect how it tastes. It is the one cheese I have tried from Caseus that I have not liked, even though I find the story particularly intriguing. It’s the saffron, I think, that’s off-putting. I nibble at it for a while as I sit at the bar, but then decide to munch on a Marcona almond, a palate cleanser, before returning to what I have left of my Montgomery Cheddar. I tell Jason I don’t really like the saffron cheese, almost apologetically. He’s not offended – I think, in fact, that he’s pleased. “It’s sort of like paintings,” he says. “You might look at a painting and hate it. But it’s powerful because it evokes strong emotions. Cheese has the power to do that too.”
At the end of the night, Jason asks everyone which pairing they liked best, as the winner will go in his “best pairings” class at the end of the year. Piaccentinu Ennese and Quo Garnache come in last place.
Hooligan, Raw Cow’s Milk, Cato Corner Farm, Colchester, CT
“It’s a stinker,” Sylvia warns me as she wraps up a small chunk of Hooligan in wax paper. Hooligan is my first “stinky” cheese, and I want to experience it properly. At home, I go through McCalman’s steps. Look: the rind is corrugated and burnt orange in color. Touch: The outside is sticky, and when I press into the inside, it is soft, sort of like Play-Doh. Smell: I bring the cheese up to my nose and breathe in the scent. My olfactory sense is particularly weak, so I smell it over and over again, trying to pin down a verbal description. The only word that comes to mind is: eggy? In The Cheese Chronicles, Liz Thorpe, who is full of praise for the “funky” Hooligan, writes that it has a smell “I can only describe at cat-butty.”
Hooligan’s aroma comes from pungent bacteria called Brevibacterium linens that grow on the surface when the cheese is washed in a bath of buttermilk and brine (salt water). Mark Gillman of Cato Corner Farm, just an hour away from New Haven, washes his Hooligans twice a week during their 60 day aging period. For the Hooligan, Mark says, he and his mother Elizabeth were inspired by the world’s great wash-rind cheeses, such as the French Münster, that monks have been making across Europe for centuries. When I ask Mark about the name, he laughs. “I guess the name fits its rough-and-tumble personality.”
Hooligan is among the best in American cheese today, and has been recognized as such by Saveur magazine and Slow Food USA. It was not included in McCalman’s World’s Best – the book came out in 2002 before Hooligan as it is known today was created – but his “Pantheon of Real Cheeses” does include 29 American cheeses, the second highest for any country next to France, which had 58 (only 17 English cheeses made the cut).
“We’re up-and-coming,” says Jason about American cheeses. Caseus has selections from across the country, from California, Texas, Georgia, and of course, Wisconsin. The card for Wisconsin’s Pleasant Ridge Reserve states, “This could become your next favorite! Rich, pastoral, amazing.”
Ken Skovron also recognizes the merits of American artisan cheese. “I think we’re doing incredible things in the US,” he says. (He too sells Cato Corner’s Hooligan in his Darien store.) “But most American cheeses are styled after European ones,” he admits, “and it’s hard to deny the original. Without them, we would be nowhere.” Indeed, Cato Corner’s “Womanchego” is named as such because it is inspired by the classic Spanish “Manchego.”
I come back to my Hooligan, and to McCalman’s last step: taste. “Always, take a small, very thin slice and let it luxuriate on your tongue, stimulating your mouth and getting all the juices flowing in there,” he writes.
I close my eyes and put a bite into my mouth. Hooligan makes it into my Pantheon of Cheese.
Parmigiano Reggiano, Stravecchio Riserva, Cow’s Milk, Italy
On a brisk November afternoon, I stroll into Caseus – it is the last visit of my three-week long cheese odyssey. A young woman in jeans and a black turtleneck is tasting Midnight Moon. When Aurélie, one of the cheesemongers who grew up in Northern France eating cheese every day, eyes me, she smiles. I have become a regular.
She hands me a sliver, and I start gushing. “Oh I love Midnight Moon! It’s one of my favorites. It’s sheep’s milk and from Holland but it’s made in California…”
“Almost – it’s made in Holland for Cypress Grove in California,” she corrects me and laughs. “It’s one of my favorites too.”
But today is not a day for Midnight Moon. I’m here for my last cheese, and I want something classic, but still unique. Something iconic. Something special.
After reviewing all the varieties that are almost tumbling out of the case and off the shelves, I finally decide on Parmigiano Reggiano, Stravecchio Riserva. It is smaller and darker than the 48-pound half wheel of typical Parmigiano Reggiano that sits on the counter, and a sticker with the word “special” is stuck on the outside. Aged six years by Reggiano Luigi Guffanti, it is one of Caseus’ most expensive cheeses at $36 a pound.
Aurélie leaves the shop to get the cheese from the temperature-and-humidity controlled “cheese cave,” where many wheels are stored and continue to age. When she returns, she pulls out a giant knife, almost two feet long, and pushes down into the cheese until it starts to crumble. It is so hard she has to stand on her toes to get the knife all the way through.
Later that day I bring the special Parmesan back to my room to share with my roommates. We take out red plastic plates and open up the futon in our common room to sit on. I unwrap the wax paper and the cheese has already broken into several pieces. Each little chunk looks like a crystal rock, glinting in the light. The rocks are crunchy, with a strange but wonderful combination of savory and sweet. “This cheese is nutty, spicy, salty, and floral all, at the same time,” its label at Caseus had read. “Winey,” one of my suitemates suggests.
While eating the Guffanti Riserva, I tell my suitemates about the best hard Parmesan I have ever had: in Florence at a restaurant called Fratelli Briganti that is known for its “secret spaghetti.” My suitemate Eleni remembers the month she spent in Paris last summer and recounts how she developed the need to smell everything she ate when she was there. She sighs, picks up a piece of the Parmesan, and brings it to her nose.
Soon, our conversation drifts beyond food to just the everyday. My art history paper. Angela’s problem set. Eleni’s play. All the while we continue munching on our winey, floral, crunchy, rock cheese. Eleni ‘s eyes grow large with excitement, and she says that the play makes her think about growing up. Angela tries to explain to me the intricacies of the kidney research she is conducting. I don’t say much and just listen. I think to myself, now the cheese has become a part of our story.