If you’ve ever had a particularly well-aged cheese like a Parmigiano Reggiano or an old Gruyère, you may have noticed tiny crunchy bits or little white spots inside the cheese. Like me, you may have dismissed the phenomena as salt crystals or a production defect.
The truth is much more interesting (or boring as hell if cheese science isn’t your thing).
Generally speaking, there are two kinds of crystals found in old cheeses (not including salt deposits).
We can have calcium lactate crystals or tyrosine crystals.
For brevity’s sake, I’ll just discuss the tyrosine crystals, as they are (in my opinion) much more interesting.
Tyrosine is one of 22 amino acids (protein building blocks). This amino acid is found in high concentrations in casein (related phosphoproteins found in mammalian milk). Once we take that into account, it’s not hard to understand why we would have crystals of the stuff forming in old cheese.
However, the issue is that tyrosine is very insoluble in solutions (0.45 mg/mL). So how do natural deposits of tyrosine form within a cheese?
Who the fuck cares?
Well the current theory is that the development of tyrosine crystals is tied closely to the metabolic behavior of Lactobacillus helveticus (literally “Swiss milk bacteria). This bacteria cannot produce tyrosine with its own biological processes, and instead must rely on a food source that contains this amino acid. Luckily for L. helveticus, the rennet used in cheese production breaks down the casein into large peptide chains. This allows L. helveticus to utilize its strong peptidase functions to break down the peptides into its component amino acids.
It has been hypothesized that the bacteria are so active in breaking down peptides that they produce much more casein than they would ever need. The excess tyrosine then accumulates, exceeds the limit of solubility, and crystals develop (Johnson et. al. 2014).
Why does this matter to us?
Well besides the interesting textures the crystals bring, tyrosine is known to have noticeable effects on your mood. Some studies have found tyrosine to be useful during conditions of “stress, cold, fatigue, prolonged work and sleep deprivation”. As tyrosine increases plasma neurotransmitter levels (particularly dopamine and norepinephrine), one can see slight reductions in stress hormone levels and stress-induced weight loss as well as improvements in cognitive and physical performance.
Who knew old cheese could subtly fuck with your brain chemistry to make you a little more awesome.
I was recently introduced into the world of nice(r) cheeses by a good friend of mine, and I was pleasantly surprised by the existence of a wine and cheese shop off of 104th street.
The Cavern is a small, independently owned cheese-monger that specializes in old, obscure and generally excellent cheeses. It also happens to double as a small “restaurant”.
Now I put restaurant in quotations because…
The Cavern really isn’t a restaurant.
Pictured: Not really a restaurant.
There are a few small tables and a tiny little bar, but that’s it. There’s nothing involving heat in the prep area and nothing on the menu requires any sort of cooking.
As such, you can expect sandwiches, salads, coffee, and various cheese and charcuterie boards.
We went for wine and cheese, and that was exactly what we got.
Upon entering the establishment, your eyes are drawn towards the shiny things. The gigantic Enomatic wine dispensing system, the espresso machine, and the cheese display/cooler dominate the small space, and lend an air of space-age sophistication.
Fancy wine machine.
The rest of the café/bar maintains some of the same glossy, stainless-steel veneer as the three machines. The floor is polished white tile and the furniture is sleek and modern, but instead of giving off class, you get a feeling that the budget was blown on the wine machine and they needed to make emergency trips to Ikea.
Fancy cheese display.
The table wobbled and the chairs were rickety. But to be honest, you really don’t notice too much. The rest of the experience is very well polished. The staff are attentive and seem to be knowledgeable about their wine and cheese pairings.
I’m sure you can read the menu, you just need to squint.
I say “seem to be”, as I know next to nothing about both cheese and wine, so they could be purposely fucking with me all I know.
Oh, and the music sucked.
It was a mix between 90’s pop and soft rock. Not that I don’t like either of those genres, it just seemed a bit out of place.
Get your shit together, Cavern, I expect nothing but Bon Iver and Rachmaninoff the next time I visit.
Our board came with a some baguette, a small pile of nuts, dried and fresh figs, pear slices, dried apricots, hot pepper preserve, and earl grey jam.
Of course, there was also the cheese.
Complete with tiny cheese cleaver.
Comté – Probably the worst tasting of the bunch, this was bland, slightly earthy, and had the consistency of brittle plastic. Instead of melting at all, it turned into tiny little granules of cheese, which was downright unpleasant. This may work better with heat, who knows.
Sardo – Similar to the Comté but much more palatable. Sardo is a traditional Argentinian cheese, and had a noticeable sharpness. The flavor also stuck around for a little bit on your palate as it dissolved/melted much easier. Worked well with the wine.
Le Cendré des Prés – A Canadian cheese, tastes like a lighter, slightly sweeter camembert with less mushroom flavor. The line in the middle is maple wood ash, and really adds very little in terms of flavor. This was a very mild, and generally pleasant cheese.
Beemster Classic – We added this one due to a suggestion from a friend and we were not disappointed. Besides the aforementioned tyrosine crystals, this cheese was sharp, salty, and had a mouth-feel consistent with dark chocolate. It starts off somewhat crumbly, but turns velvety and smooth, with strong tones of toasted nuts and caramel.
Florid language aside, Beemster is fucking delicious.
One more, because I actually took pictures this time.
And the wine?
I honestly don’t have a clue. They could’ve served me prison hooch in a fancy bottle for all I know.
Didn’t taste like vinegar.
Only a little bitter.
Got the job done.
…I think it’s some sort of…alcoholic grape drink?
At the end of the day, besides a few cosmetic flaws, The Cavern delivers on what it set out to do.
It provides a quiet, quaint, and cozy environment where you can explore new flavors and learn a bit about wine and cheese.
Hey, and if you feel like it, you can bring home a 400 dollar wheel of gouda.
Johnson, M. “Crystallization in Cheese” Dairy Pipeline Volume 26.3. 2014