Cheese connoisseur I am not. That distinction I tend to reserve for my penchant for crepes -which often have cheese in them, but my tastes lean more towards sweet. I do have my favorites. Goat. Mozzarella. Gruyere. Parmigiano-Reggiano. Brie. Cheddar. Apparently when it comes to cheese I like to play it safe. If it stinks, has veins or dwells in a cave, I’ll probably pass. But I did get an earthy mouthful of insanely good cheese along with an earful of Cheese 101 on Wednesday evening thanks to the folks at Murray’s Cheese. They’ve recently set up shop at the University Village QFC.

Front of U Village Murray's Cheese shop

I attended a blogger’s preview on Wednesday to tour the NYC-based Cheese Shop’s first Seattle location and took part in a wine and cheese pairing session led by Liz Thorpe. Easily considered the foremost -if not youngest -expert in her field, Liz is Murray’s VP, author of The Cheese Chronicles and co-author of The Murray’s Cheese Handbook.

In researching her book, Liz spent 7 years closely interacting with local cheese makers from everywhere, learning the ins and out of cheese, while “crisscrossing the country to taste, talk, study, and celebrate it in all its milky guises” and as she candidly admits, “eating a lot of awful cheese.” Talk about suffering for your craft. Since coming aboard as VP, “she has been hugely influential in bringing American cheese making to the forefront, as well as greatly expanding the company’s wholesale program,” said Nathan Alridge, Field Merchandising Specialist, also on hand to lead the wine and cheese pairing. Both were extremely approachable and offered witty and interesting anecdotes along our cheese tasting journey, explaining each pairing in passionate detail and specifying each cheese’s family – or category – for neophytes like me.

The Cheese Chronicles and Murray's Cheese Handbook

Ask anyone from the East Coast and they’ll likely know of the Greenwich Village institution. Humbly founded in 1940, it  now boasts two flagship stores – one on the original Bleecker Street – a thriving wholesale business, and more recently, outposts in Kroger’s supermarkets and their subsidiaries in select cities (like QFC’s around here).

This purveyor has become the country’s leading cheese destination and Forbes even declared it “the world’s top cheese shop.” Its mission is “to bring the best cheese selection to the United States while educating customers about cheese.”

Original Murray's Cheese Shop

What does that imply for our local cheesemakers?  It means a renewed focus on the craft of cheese making. Murray’s is dedicated to bringing domestic cheeses to the forefront of shopping lists by highlighting and educating consumers on the American style of cheese-making and will be showcasing cheesemakers from Washington and Oregon.

In the coming months Murray’s will be hosting ‘Meet Your Local Cheesemaker‘ events with Beechers, Cascadia Creamery and Mt. Townsend. A great way to put potential customers in touch with local cheese-makers and “in taste” with local cheeses.

Local Cheese section

In order, here is what we tasted:

1st – La Tur –A pasteurized cow, sheep, and goat –which Liz deemed a ‘Brie 201,’ for its heavier, richer cheesecakey texture than the runnier brie most of us are used to. It comes from Piedmont region of Italy, and has a bloomy rind.  Served drizzled with Oregon Grower’ Wildflower Honey and a Domaine St. Michelle Brut, the Murray’s folks called this an overall favorite of its preview reception. With its richness and mouthfeel, and the concentrated sweetness of the honey -I’d have to agree it was my favorite as well.

2nd – Tumalo Farms Pondhopper – A pasteurized goat cheese from Bend, OR, and a specialty semi-hard cheese with a hint of Cascade Hops from a local microbrewery.  This one was served with Thistly Cross Cider. Liz shared that the owner of Tumalo Farms is also the co-founder of WebMD, and she had no qualms about this cheese purveyor running out of operating funds any time soon.

Pont L 'Eveque (l) and Tumalo Farms Pondhopper (r)

3rd – Pont L ‘Eveque – A pasteurized cow cheese, from Normandy, France – that once formed into a wheel -is washed in salt water, several times a week for 8 weeks to impart its signature taste to the rind. Traditionally, beer was added to the washwater brine, as cheese was often made by 12th century monks, who we know also brewed their own beer. Murrays writes that ‘this Norman treat has been restoring ruddy face, sweater laden Frenchies since the 12thcentury –slicing the plump,stinky tile onto dark bread and nosh with a cup of cider or well-worn flask of Calvados.’  Here it was served with Thistly Cross Cider –for a perfectly balanced pairing to the brine.

4th – Manchego – A pasteurized sheep cheese–from Castilla-La Mancha, Spain – it’s a specialty cheese. It’s aged 9-12 months, lending it a more granular, dry texture with a nutty, caramel flavor. A year’s aging process also results in sharper acidic notes –as its flavors are more concentrated. A younger Manchego, by contrast, is only aged 3-4 months and is more pliable, and doesn’t have as sharp an acidity or concentrated a flavor. The classical pairing is a quince paste, but to give it a more NW flavor, they served it with a Oregon Grower’ Pear Hazelnut Fig Pate, and a Red Diamond (OR) Malbec. This was probably my second favorite pairing –but then again, I’m partial to both manchego and Malbec. What can I say –I was born in Spain & have the palette to prove it.

Aged Manchego (l) and Cascade Creamery Sleeping Beauty (r)

5th – Cascadia Creamery Sleeping Beauty – a Raw Cow cheese, from Trout Lake, WA, a specialty cheese with a natural rind. The size & shape of wheel is comparable to Manchego. Cascadia Creamery Cows are grass fed – and the cheese color will appear more orange based on the stage of grass growing season (due to the beta carotene content). Depending on when you shop for it, you could get a very yellow cheese that appears to be artificially enhanced.  It was paired with the Dalmatia Fig Jam, which is one of Top 3 cheese pairing products sold at QFC, and is made with imported Adriatic figs. The wine poured was an Erath Pinor Noir.

Murray’s public opening was Thursday night from 4-7 p.m. at the University Village QFC. They’ll open in two more QFC stores this spring –both on Capitol Hill; Harvard Market in April and Broadway Market in June. The University Village location is the first of seven cheese shops scheduled to open inside Seattle area QFC stores this year, so keep your eye out for one opening near you.

Also watch for the ‘Meet Your Local Cheesemaker’ in-store events, which will happen every Saturday from 10 am -4 pm during the grand opening month of each store, and will feature such notable locals as Kurt Beech Dammeir and Brad Sinko of Beecher’s Handmade Cheese, Tom Schuman of Cascadia Creamery (Trout Lake), and Matt Day of Mt. Townsend Creamery (Pt. Townsend) -all from WA state.

I want to thank Murray’s Cheese, for the wonderful education and cheeses for which they are known, Chateau Ste. Michelle for the delicious wine pairings, and QFC for being such gracious and generous hosts. I will be sure to venture into more unexplored cheese territory -and who knows, venture deep down into the Murray’s Cheese caves or ‘subterranean aging rooms’ on their popular tours -next time I’m in ‘The Village’ -Greenwich, that is. But maybe I’ll swing by my local ‘village’ QFC to pick up some of that stinky cheese first.