Behind the counter and into the caves at Murray’s Cheese

March 24, 2017

Murray’s Cheese was founded in 1940 on Cornelia Street. When Rob Kaufelt bought the business in 1991, he grew the store into an internationally known food destination that now includes educational programs, a full-service restaurant, catering, and state-of-the-art cheese aging caves in Long Island City. Personally, our love affair with Murray’s Cheese began in 1994, when we were newlyweds on a budget, often buying cheese from the small Bleecker Street store to eat with some freshly baked bread purchased from the nearby Zito & Sons Bakery. Plus, with Murray’s being our namesake, we felt an immediate connection to the store.

Just last month, the Kroger Company purchased the equity of Murray’s Cheese and its flagship Greenwich Village location to form a merger of the two companies. As this new era approaches, we decided to capture all the cheesy goodness of the store, restaurant, and caves, as well as chat with Rob, cavemaster PJ, and Murray’s Cheese Bar’s general manager Jake Goznikar to learn about Murray’s history, unique contributions to local and world-wide food culture, and future.

On February 7, 2017, the Kroger Company announced that it purchased the equity of Murray’s Cheese as well as its flagship location on Bleecker Street to form a merger of the two companies. Kroger and Murray’s have had a unique relationship since 2008, with Murray’s Cheese delivering the finest selection of cheese, charcuterie and specialty food items to Kroger supermarkets through Murray’s kiosks located inside the stores. There are currently more than 350 Murray’s Cheese shops in Kroger locations across the United States.

Murray’s former owner and president Robert Kaufelt will remain affiliated with the business in a strategic advisory role but is no longer involved in the day to day operations of Murray’s Cheese.

Zito & Sons Bakery (where James and Karla would buy bread to go with their cheese) on the left, with the original Cornelia Street storefront of Murray’s on the right

Murray’s Cheese was founded in 1940 on Cornelia Street by Murray Greenberg and primarily sold milk, eggs, and butter. Murray sold the business in the 1970s to his clerk, Louis Tudda, who added pasta, olive oil, and Italian cheeses to cater to the neighborhood’s many Italian customers.

Rob Kaufelt, whose extended family was in the grocery business, explained how he acquired the business:

[I was] waiting in line for my turn when I heard Louie, the owner say to the fellow in front of me that he lost his lease and was closing the shop and going back to Italy. So when it was my turn I said to Louie, you know the corner store has a for rent sign on it. (As it does now I might add). So why don’t you just move there? Louie said to me, “No, I don’t want to do that. I want to just go back to Italy.” So I said, “listen, if I can rent the space, will you sell the business to me?” And he didn’t seem too enthusiastic about that either. But we went back and forth for a little while and eventually we made a deal and in the spring of 1991, I became the third owner of Murray’s. And then after I had purchased the business Louie asked me if he could have a job at the store because he wanted his kids to finish school before returning back to Italy. So I said sure and he came to work behind the counter.

“I would describe the original Murray’s as a little Italian bodega. It had a lot of pasta and oils and a cheese counter and deli for people to buy sliced deli meats. Nothing very fancy and low prices but always very popular and busy. At that time in the early 1990s, it was primarily an Italian neighborhood. Really that part of Greenwich Village was an extension of Little Italy to the east. The best-selling cheeses when I bought the store–and the same is true over 25 years later–are the Italian cheeses: Parmigiano Reggiano, Grana Padano, and Pecorino Romano. Provolone was also a best seller but it is not as popular anymore.”

Rob moved Murray’s around the corner to Bleecker Street. “Literally one day we were in the old shop on Cornelia and overnight we moved the business to the corner of Bleecker at Cornelia and were open the next day. I continued selling the same Italian cheeses, but I also began to search out and order other things from different purveyors and distributors. At the same time, more and more people were going back into cheese-making in the United States and needed a place to sell their cheese besides their local farmers market so I was began to expand the cheese offerings at Murray’s.”

View of the storefront still on Cornelia Street in 2001

The present-day storefront

In 2004, Robert Kaufelt moved the shop to a larger location directly across Bleecker Street and even constructed masonry caves in the basement of the store in which to store and age cheese. Robert explained to us, “I wasn’t happy with the cheese coming from the distributors and wanted to bring in cheeses directly from Europe myself. So I began to travel around the world, finding new artisan cheeses and acquired licenses to bring them here. But then once they got here, it didn’t seem like a good idea to put all the different cheese together in the same refrigerator. They didn’t do that abroad in France. The cheese shops had their own cheese seller caves. So I found out what it meant to build a cave and we built 5 small caves in the cellar of the store. We began to age the cheese we brought in so as to have the best possible cheese for our customers.”

Murray’s caves were the first caves in the United States to be constructed solely for the purpose of aging cheese. They were precisely modeled after ancient cheese caves in France, being cool in temperature and high and steady in humidity, enabling Murray’s to mature cheese at the store so that customers could enjoy their selection at the peak of ripeness.

“Typically at any given time, we have 250 different cheeses in stock at the store. Seasonally there are new things coming in all the time and there a few more cheeses in the caves that are being developed for restaurants that may never wind up in the retail shops,” says Rob.

In 2013, Murray’s built a new set of caves, twice the size of the Greenwich Village caves, in a state-of-the-art production facility in Long Island City, Queens. We were lucky enough to be invited to tour and photograph the caves last year and were shown around by the cavemaster PJ, Peter Jenkelunas. There are four sizable caves; the Washed Rind Cave, the Bloomy Rind Cave, the Natural Rind Cave, and the Alpine Cave, as well as a drying room. PJ explained to us: “

Each cave is designed so that temperature, humidity, and microbial activity of mold and bacteria can be precisely controlled and monitored to ensure that every cheese matures in its ideal environment. Different cheeses require vastly different mold cultures, temperatures, amounts of time, and moisture levels to age properly. We usually try to get our cheeses at a younger age from the creamery than most other sellers. In some cases we buy entirely fresh cheeses from cheese makers and age them from start to finish, and in other cases the creamery starts aging cheeses themselves and then we finish aging them in here. Our unique cave environment puts a different twist on the cheese than the cheese maker would since every cave is different in its microbial content and will release different flavors and aromas into the cheese.

In order to enter the caves, we had to first put on provided lab coats, rubber boots, and hairnets. After scrubbing the boots with a soap and solvent and thoroughly washing our hands to prevent any kind of contamination, we were allowed inside the stringently controlled microbial environment.

Wheels of Greensward

The “Washed Rind Cave” houses many strongly-flavored and stinky cheeses with a pungent bite that require a water, brine, or alcohol bath a few times each week. Warm temperatures in the cave help bacteria flourish and high humidity keeps the rinds supple and delicate, rather than cracked and dry. The cheeses are externally ripened and come to Murray’s in an aged form so that the cave’s job is to maintain the rind development and external ripening of the desired bacteria. In addition, the frequent washes of beer, wine, and cider help develop the complexity of flavor independent of the mold and bacterial cultures.

We were drawn to the spruce bark-wrapped wheels of Murray’s Cavemaster Reserve Greensward, which is a cow milk, Brie-like cheese bathed with cider brine, giving it a big, bacony, luscious silky texture with notes of forest and resin from its spruce jacket. This cheese was created by Murray’s Cheese and Jasper Hill in Vermont specifically for Eleven Madison Park.

When we exited the “Washed Rind Cave” there was a team of three, carefully scrubbing discs of Murray’s Cavemaster Reserve: The Other Stephen with a beer wash of American stout from the Other Half Brewing in Brooklyn. The workers explained, “We are imparting a flavor as we scrub the cheese. We keep scrubbing until the surface is wet and at the same time we are washing off some of the mold.” When it is finished aging after three to four weeks, this flavorful cheese will have notes of roasted coffee beans, dark cocoa, hops, and flowers with a salty finish.

Condor’s Ruin, a Valencay-type cheese, which is made with pasteurized sheep’s milk and aged three to six months with traditional lamb’s rennet and a line of ash just below the bloomy rind

Sainte-Maure, a classic goat cheese with a vegetable ash coat and piece of straw reinforcing its midsection. Murray’s develops the rind of the Saint-Maure over a period of 3-4 weeks, resulting in a soft cheese with a balanced tang of walnut aromas and a lemony finish.

The “Bloomy Rind Cave” has a slightly cooler and drier environment for soft-ripened cheeses like Brie that age from the outside in via mold cultures and yeasts that develop and mature on the rind of young, aka “green,” cheeses. Murray’s purchases many of the small format goat’s milk cheeses kept in the Bloomy Rind Cave fresh and without a rind, allowing them to monitor mold growth in-house to develop higher quality rinds.

We saw French goat cheeses aged three to five weeks in this cave from the Brie and Camembert family, which have a fluffy white mold growing on them. The lower temperature and humidity prevent mold from growing too quickly and causing rind slippage, where the cheeses slip off their rinds and fall apart. The molds inside the cave help create a signature flavor that is unique to Murray’s “bloomies.”

Murray’s Cavemaster Reserve Hudson Flower (seen on the bottom left of the photo above), a shorter-aged and softer sheep milk cheese with a coat of a secret blend of rosemary, lemon thyme, marjoram, elderberries and hop flowers which impart a robust piney and floral aroma.

Cornell Cheddar, with rinds that were mottled and multi-colored with gray-brown, golden-yellow, off-white microorganisms, which PJ told us indicated spontaneous growth.

The “Natural Rind Cave” actively ripens cheese from the outside in and houses rinds that form naturally in the cheese making process. The high humidity but slightly colder temperature in the cave keeps the developing rinds alive but ensures that they do not ripen too quickly, which could impart an undesirable bitter and ammoniated flavor. Some of the cheeses in the cave are also brushed to keep mold growth to a minimum, allowing internal enzymes to age the cheese instead of the external ones.

The “Alpine Cave,” the largest cheese cave on site, contains the Alpine style of cheese, hard cheeses that come in very large wheels ranging from 10 to 200 pounds, and are aged for months and years rather than days and weeks like the other cave styles. All of the cheeses inside this cave are aged internally with the natural rind, oiled or bandaged coat, serving as a barrier to protect the cheeses from inappropriate molds and moisture loss.

The Kåserei Tufertschwil Challerhocker, which translates to “sitting in the cellar,” is an alpine cheese that’s washed in wine and spices and then aged for a minimum of 10 months. It has a cooked custard aroma with the flavor of roasted nuts, which veers in the butterscotch direction. The Murray’s stamp is put on the wheels when the cheese is very young.

PJ, using the “cheese trier” tool, carving a sample from a Jasper Hill Farm Alpha Tolman wheel. It’s made using traditional Alpine methods and washed with brine to infuse the cheese with some funk. While younger wheels have milky, fruit, and nut flavors and a smooth feel, mature wheels like this are more bold and meaty with amplified butter and caramelized onion flavors carried by a rich, crystalline texture. 

The Alpine style of cheese was traditionally made at high-altitude from the milk of pasture-grazing animals. The dairy milk was cooked in huge quantities and pressed into very large molds to reduce the number of wheels the cheese makers would have to lug down the mountain. The Alpine Cave, with its high humidity and warmer temperatures, spurs enzymatic action that nurtures the slow-developing cheeses so that they have complex nutty, grassy, caramelized milk flavor traits. PJ also explained to us that the alpine-style cheeses are usually washed during the ripening process, which affects their flavor. The rinds may also be washed by the staff up to several times a week so that they don’t dry and crack.

In 2012, Rob opened Murray’s Cheese Bar just three doors down from the cheese shop as a small sit-down restaurant that serves an assortment of cheese plates, wines and craft beer pairings, and a dinner menu that includes fondue, their signature Mac and cheese, and even cheeseburgers. There’s also a weekend lunch menu that “supports local purveyors and sustainable farms when possible.” We were happy to see that they source their grass-fed beef from our favorite neighborhood butcher, Ottomanelli’s on Bleecker Street.

Ian Pearson, the cheese program manager, preparing our “Cheesemonger’s Choice”

Our cheese plate. From left to right: freshly sliced Prosciutto Di San Daniele; River’s Edge Up In Smoke, a fresh goat cheese from Oregon wrapped in bourbon-soaked maple leaves that are then smoked over alder and maple wood; Mimolette, a classic French cow’s milk cheese paired with a swipe of pistachio butter; the Murray’s Cavemaster Reserve Greensward paired with Balsamic Cipollini onions; and the Chiriboga Blue paired with raw clover honey.

Jake Goznikar, the General Manager told us, “Most people order the five cheese plate to start. Usually their choice is based on what their tastes are limited by so they set the constraints and the monger comes in and pairs the cheeses with a beverage including beer, cider, cocktails, or wines. The monger then comes to the table and explains everything on the plate including the condiments the cheeses are paired with, which range from jams, nuts, chutneys, among others. Our staff’s encyclopedic knowledge of cheese definitely sets this restaurant apart from any others.”


All images © James and Karla Murray, photos are not to be reproduced without written permission

james and karla murray storefront

James and Karla Murray are husband-and-wife New York-based photographers and authors. Their critically acclaimed books include Store Front: The Disappearing Face of New York, New York Nights, Store Front II- A History Preserved and Broken Windows-Graffiti NYC. The authors’ landmark 2008 book, Store Front, was cited in Bookforum’s Dec/Jan 2015 issue as one of the “Exemplary art books from the past two decades” and heralded as “One of the periods most successful New York books.” New York Nights was the winner of the prestigious New York Society Library’s 2012 New York City Book Award. James and Karla Murray’s work has been exhibited widely in major institutions and galleries, including solo exhibitions at the Brooklyn Historical Society, Clic Gallery in New York City, and Fotogalerie Im Blauen Haus in Munich, Germany, and group shows at the New-York Historical Society and the Museum of Neon Art in Glendale, CA. Their photographs are included in the permanent collections of major institutions, including the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, the New York Public Library, and NYU Langone Medical Center. James and Karla were awarded the 2015 Regina Kellerman Award by the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation (GVSHP) in recognition of their significant contribution to the quality of life in Greenwich Village, the East Village, and NoHo. James and Karla live in the East Village of Manhattan with their dog Hudson.

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