One of my favorite parts of my “day job” is getting to wander the streets of New York City and visit its many varied cheese shops. The city is home to all kinds of cheese shops: some extravagant and grand, some well curated and reliable, and some small and humble. No matter what sort of shop I’ve stumbled into, one of my favorite things to do is ask the person at the counter for a taste of whatever they believe is their best cheese on that day, at that moment. It’s an incredibly fun exercise, and often quite surprising.
So just this past week, I was wandering in the Upper East Side and found myself in front of Ideal Cheese, a 56-year-old mom-and-pop establishment. I went in and immediately saw owner Michael Binetti engaged in deep conversation with what appeared to be a pair of serious customers. As it turned out, these cheese lovers were, in fact, Binetti’s mom and dad, with whom he just happened to be having an intensive discussion about wine and cheese. We all chatted for a bit, and I decided to ask Michael my “give-me-your-best-cheese” question; without hesitation, he says, “I got it!” and grabs the closest cheese to him. I must admit his lack of thought and speedy selection made me a bit skeptical, but after one bite, I knew I’d been had. Frankly, this cheese blew me away. With a smile, Michael said, “And now you’ve tasted the Marcel Petite Three-Year Comté.”
This Comté is aged in a former munitions depot in the Fort Lucotte de Saint-Antoine, near the Swiss border. Each cheese is turned over regularly by robots working in the dark (how cool is that?). They store around 100,000 wheels in their caves; the robots ensure every wheel is turned systematically. This regular turning in a controlled atmosphere is what allows the cheeses to age slowly and evenly, and the attention to detail and consistent care is what make this cheese stand out amongst a crowded field of Comté cheese choices.
The tasters at Fort Saint-Antoine taste the cheese often to assess its quality, and most wheels are sold after being aged for 18 months. The cheese is considered delicious at 18 months, but a few wheels are kept to age for an additional year and a half. At an age of three years, this cheese is magical; it was not dry and crumbly, and it still had quite a bit of softness to it. It had developed the wonderful protein crystals similar to those found in Parmigiano. It had a bit of nuttiness, toasted grain and brown butter flavors. Try a white wine from the Jura region with the cheese; I prefer the Cremant, a semi-sparkling white wine made from Chardonnay grapes.
Michael told me this cheese was difficult to obtain, not always available and always sold out quickly when he did get his hands on some. It is a pricey cheese – around $44 per pound – but without a doubt worth every penny. Cheese like this I can always justify to myself by saying, “For ten or eleven bucks – less than the cost of seeing a movie – I can get a quarter pound and share a super rare treat with a friend or two.” If you think of it in the context of having that kind of rare shared experience, I feel that buying and enjoying cheese of this quality is well worth it.
Additional reporting by Madeleine James.