I am blue.
But don’t fret. There is no cause for alarm. I am not blue as in sad. I am blue as in the cheese.
In the early hours of Thursday morning, with the moon still beaming bright, I find myself unable to sleep. It is an unusually warm winter night yet the heat persists in pumping up through the pipes only to settle in my sweltering 6th floor apartment. Unable to rest, I open my laptop to see what searches are in store. I come upon a game to get me through the night: A cheese quiz. In preparation for my day of cheesemaking, I eagerly fill in the multiple choice form – curious to know my cheese identity. Try it for yourself: http://cupped-expressions.net/cheese/quiz/
The results of my cheese persona are in. It turns out I am a Blue; mellow, knowledgeable, a little crumbly but wise. Not bad – aside from that crumbly part. I examine the other cheese descriptions and notice the mozzarella is most becoming: soft, imaginative, creative, young, flexible and fresh. Mozzarella sounds so dreamy… so delicate. Oh how I wish I was a Mozzarella.
In an effort to learn the art of cheesemaking, as well as make a major personality conversion, I spent my Thursday at Joe’s Dairy at 156 Sullivan making fresh and smoked mozzarella and falling in love – with Anthony, Vincent, Frank, Ro, Luis & Luis (yes there are two of them).
I walk into the shop and I am instantly transported to a simpler time and place. Handwritten love letters line the walls: a pound of Cabot Pepper Jack for $4.49 and Rosemary Crusted Goat for $14.99 are casually written, scratched out, and re-written on white sheets of butcher paper. Scattered among the glass showcases filled with cheese and propped up on the wooden shelves next to the pastas, imported olives oils and balsamics are photos of family and just-born children. And like any Italian household 3 weeks before the holidays, you can hear Bing Crosby belting out White Christmas from the speakers of the 1980’s style boom box in the back.
I am greeted by Anthony Campanelli (the shop owner) and Ro Pianoforte (a family friend) who is behind the counter – and has been for 10 years. Anthony is busy packing and unpacking mozzarella deliveries for Luis to transport to nearby restaurants and Ro is tinkering with her cheeses and checking the refrigerator temperature to make sure it is calibrated correctly. While they work – and without skipping a beat – they carry on a cheerful conversation about their holiday gift giving ideas. Among the feta, the manchego and, of course, the mozzarella they chat about snow globes and fairy tale figurines. Joe’s Dairy is a fairly balanced blend of family and fresh mozzarella.
Out pops Vincent from the clear plastic partition which separates the shop from the kitchen where the mozzarella is hand crafted. Vincent is Anthony’s older brother. He is lively and bright-eyed and full of philosophies on everything – from family life to mozzarella making.
Do you do any ballet?” Vincent questions me. If you thought he was commenting on the graceful line of my neck as I initially did – you’d be wrong. “It gets pretty crowded back there – and we’re not tiny.” Vincent was right. I did plie and arabesque – and also slide, and slip, and almost fall to the floor all throughout the course of my day. Thankfully, Vincent was there to quickly catch me on those first few futile footsteps.
I am crushed in the corner of the tiny kitchen clutching the steel basin of the sink as I try to avoid making a fool of myself and sliding on the slippery, wet floor. Luis is standing over a large pot of nearly boiling, 185 degree water – making mozzarella by hand. Hot milky water is flying in front of me as I attempt to delicately hold my position to keep out of the way. With a twinkle in his eye and a big smile on his face Luis shifts his focus from his work and quickly rolls and ties a tiny ball of mozzarella, dips it in sea-salted water and hands it to me. It looks like a perfectly wrapped present – a bocconcini with a bow. The milky, warm, creamy mozzarella melts in my mouth. I have been to Italy and back and never once tasted something so invited. It is meltingly good and undeniably fresh. My knees are buckling – but this time not from the fickle floor. Luis, watching my delight, gives me a nod. And with this one gentle gesture he initiates me into this private club and my work can commence. But of course, I must start at the very beginning.
The cow’s milk cheese curd comes to Joe’s Dairy by way of Buffalo, New York. I am responsible for first grating the cheese curd in order to create more surface area so that once these tiny pieces of curd hit the hot water they will melt more speedily. Using a Guitara or Harp – otherwise know as a cheese grater – I push pounds of curd through the metal strings – careful not to cause any cuts on the few jagged edges.
Like a school teacher (which he was) Vincent helps me polish and perfect my technique and advises me to keep the curd towards the center of the harp. He even holds a pen in his right hand – as if he is about to correct my first assignment. Vincent encourages me not to be afraid of the cheese – just dive in and get dirty is his best suggestion. I never thought of myself as fearful of cheese but after he mentions this I can sense my own apprehension. After a few minutes I relax my shoulders and I realize I quite like this ritual and pressing and pushing – especially to the tune of Vincent’s philosophies. “You gotta be insane,” he insists to be in this business – to put your hands into a nearly boiling pot of water and commit your life to making mozzarella for 19 hours a day. Brothers Vincent and Anthony recount stories of those early days when they would work around the clock – then take a break to run home and shower – only to repeat the cycle again the next day. While I am working out my biceps and triceps on the countless cups of cheese curd, I am enjoying the tales of mozzarella past. In this little kitchen there is a fierce competition. Between the cheesemaking and the storytelling – it’s a tie for first.
I slide over to the hottest hub of the kitchen. I am nestled close to Luis and a pot of 185 degree water which sits atop a four-burner gas stove – just like the one I have at home. Next to that stove is large empty pot where we pour my freshly grated cheese curd and then bathe it gently with in hot water – one saucer at a time.
Luis guides my hand as I stir the cheese and watch it melt from hundreds of separated slices into a one 32 pound ball of mozzarella. Waves of water are swishing everywhere – on me – on Luis – and onto the floor. A big splash and then another – and I am soaked. Luis assures me I’m doing okay. Our hands are in hot water as we fish out the large mozzarella ball and begin to stretch it out like bread dough – ever so gently as to not lose the butterfat. And then the games begin.
As if it is an olympic sport, Luis speedily tosses one pound balls of mozzarella to Anthony and me at a quickening pace – and they teach me how to roll them out into a ball, tucking the cheese into itself and then pinching off the neck to maintain the moisture. One after the other after the next, we toss the mozzarella balls in cool water and then into a wading pool of sea-salt – creating a polished and shiny surface. While we work, Anthony and I get to chatting about his business and his life.
Anthony and Vincent were raised in apartment #3 – just upstairs from Joe’s Dairy. Although Vincent became a full-time NYC teacher (and part-time philosopher as well) Anthony decided that college was not in the cards. When when the owner of Joe’s Dairy, Joe Aiello, decided to go back home to Italy permanently, Anthony knew exactly what he needed to do. Just 3 weeks shy of his 18th birthday, Anthony put his key in the door of his very own mozzarella making shop. For the first few years he was only inches away from creditors. Then the customers came. At first they came out of professional curiosity – but they stayed for the cheese. And you will too. It is a story of a neighborhood boy done good. Anthony loves what he does. As he put it, “who wants stick your hands in hot water all day? I do. I do”
Anthony, Luis and I continue of shaping and molding one pound and half pound balls of mozzarella in the back, while upfront actor Willem Defoe is buying a large one pound ball of freshly smoked mozzarella from Ro. And I am fascinated, by both the chiseled features and high cheek bones of the Green Goblin as well as the process of smoking mozzarella – something I have yet to see. It is nearing 2PM and after an hour of my continual questions, Luis finally decides to give my curiosity a rest. The two of us retreat downstairs to make some smoke.
Luis and I crawl through the cellar doors and into the dark, deserted alleyway between the apartment buildings. It is here that we smoke our fresh mozzarella by hand – no machines, no chemicals involved. Luis climbs up the exterior stairway and Vincent passes the mozzarella balls out through the window. Back down the stairs Luis and I tie one ball of fresh mozzarella on either end of a short brown cord and hang the cords over a long stick. That stick then rests on the top of a large metal barrel. Luis lets me light the bottom of the barrel on fire and the flames fly free for about two to three minutes until the mozzarella is smoked to perfection. Together Luis an I untie the cord from each ball of mozzarella ball – It feels like christmas-time with a sea of just tied presents all waiting to be unwrapped. The newly smoked mozzarella balls are sent back upstairs, through the window to be washed and sold – all but one. Luis removes his gloves and with his bare hands he rips off a salty, smokey slice and it melts in my mouth. I am a ruined woman. I will never eat from a supermarket cheese section again.Vodpod videos no longer available.
I grew up in a household where the only mozzarella I knew came from a plastic package, had a rectangular shape and was hard – inside and out. This mozzarella is a world away from my early cheese-eating years. After a morning of stretching, pulling, molding and reshaping the mozzarella I start to think about that cheese quiz I took earlier this morning. I think about those mozzarella characteristics – pliable, soft, flexible and changeable. And I am beginning to see some of those traits of mozzarella in me.
I, like most New Yorkers, am always moving from apartment to apartment, relationship to relationship and job to job. I sway with the wind and adapt to each new crisis – quickly and easily. When I crumble – just like those shreds of cheese curd – I swiftly swirl myself back together into a stable and solid object and continue to create the next chapter. But as I think about Luis – tailoring, tucking and tying off the ends of the mozzarella – and as I watched Anthony toss one pounders into the cool water – I start to think about that polished and shiny surface of the mozzarella. All that shaping, kneading and dipping yields a firm outer layer which protects the milky softness inside. This firmness is a quality I have come to appreciate.
In a changing world – it is quite nice to create a sense of stability, solidity and to feel firm in your footsteps. I am moving next week – to my very own studio apartment about a block away from where I am now living with a roommate. The place is small, with fickle heating and it is up 4 flights of stairs. But most importantly… it is mine. It is mine to make a mess – and mine to clean. It is mine to grow basil in the courtyard garden, mine to chop pesto in the kitchen and mine to wash the dishes when the meal is done. As I place my key in and unlock the door to my new empty apartment – and just like that mozzarella after is has had a swim in the salt – I create a firmness, an outer layer of strength and a stability to my surface.
So maybe I am not blue after all. Maybe I am indeed quite like the mozzarella that I spent my day alongside. Maybe I am soft and pliable and flexible on the inside – but firm and solid and strong as well. If you are wondering what kind of person you are – go ahead and take the cheese quiz. And if you’d like to be converted, like me, and come over to the supple side of the mozzarella – stop by Joe’s Dairy on Sullivan. One bite and you will never look back.